London: British Prime Minister Theresa May is entering the most delicate and dangerous negotiations of the country’s split from the European Union as she searches for a compromise with her political enemies that will deliver a Brexit deal.
With just 10 weeks left before the departure deadline, May is prepared to blur her red lines to find a plan that will get through Parliament, according to a person familiar with the matter. That could mean keeping closer ties to the EU, an outcome backed by opposition parties.
On Wednesday night, May survived an attempt to oust her government in a vote of no-confidence 24 hours after her agreement with the EU was emphatically rejected. She immediately opened talks in an effort to break the deadlock and must return to Parliament to set out her Plan B by Monday.
“The government approaches these meetings in a constructive spirit and I urge others to do the same,” May told the House of Commons after winning the confidence vote. “But we must find solutions that are negotiable and command sufficient support in this House.”
The pound initially rose on expectations a cross-party approach would yield a Brexit plan that protects trading links with the bloc.
But the prime minister soon discovered that the price of her opponents’ cooperation could be too high. Rival party leaders quickly began laying down their conditions for taking part in talks to rescue May’s Brexit strategy. These included keeping open the option of delaying Brexit and even a second referendum on membership of the EU.
Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis on Thursday appeared to rule out a customs union, which he said would prevent the UK from having an independent trade policy.
“That’s something that I think people would feel is not delivering Brexit,” Lewis said in a BBC Radio interview, without naming areas where the government is prepared to compromise.
Her predicament was compounded as Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour party, refused to take part at all.
In a televised late-night address, May said she’d held “constructive” meetings with the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and Welsh party Plaid Cymru, but she was “disappointed” Corbyn had declined her offer. May said her door remains open to Corbyn if he changes his mind.
The UK remains locked in a political crisis over its divorce from the EU with no deal in sight. Officials in both London and Brussels believe an extension to the March 29 exit deadline is now likely, although May still won’t contemplate a delay in public.
The deal May has spent almost two years negotiating with the bloc was trounced by 230 votes on Tuesday night. It was the worst parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British history.
May now has little choice but to try to find an alternative plan that can win the backing of Labour, Scottish National Party, or Liberal Democrat members of Parliament. These parties favour closer trading ties with the EU than May has proposed, with Labour — for example — advocating full, permanent membership of a customs union with the bloc.
That is anathema to many pro-Brexit members of May’s Conservative party. While they backed May in the confidence vote, they will be quick to denounce any attempts she makes to find a compromise that binds Britain more tightly to the EU that her original proposals.
The support of May’s Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party is also conditional on a radical overhaul of her exit deal.
Without backing from all her Conservatives and the DUP, May risks losing a future vote of no-confidence in the government. That would potentially trigger the general election Corbyn is seeking.
British authorities warn that leaving the EU without a deal could lead to a recession, with the pound falling as much as 25 per cent and house prices taking as much as a 30 per cent hit. Already, suppliers to manufacturers are stockpiling just in case.
Corbyn, the Labour leader, said May must rule out a no-deal Brexit as a precondition for discussions. After a spokesman for the prime minister later told reporters she was not doing so, Corbyn’s camp said no deal was being used as “blackmail.”
It was Corbyn who proposed the no-confidence vote. He said May is now running a “zombie government.” But May survived, defeating the motion by 325 votes to 306.
Time is running short. According to a person familiar with the matter, May is also urgently lining up calls with EU leaders to discuss the next steps.
May’s offer to work with rival parties is likely to be welcomed by the EU. The bloc urged May to enter into credible cross-party discussions to reach a unified UK position after she lost the vote on her deal on Tuesday, diplomats said.
They said the next step could be to reopen the political declaration — the part of the agreement dealing with future relations — to make it clear that ties will remain closer after Brexit than May previously envisaged.