The British government and the main opposition were to hold further crisis talks on Thursday (4 April) after MPs voted in favour of a Brexit delay that would avoid Britain crashing out of the EU on 12 April.
With options running out, May switched course and invited Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with whom she had talks on Wednesday in a bid to forge a compromise that avoids a chaotic “no-deal” departure from the European Union in eight days’ time.
Negotiating teams for both sides were to meet again on Thursday for a full day of urgent discussions.
May’s divorce deal with the other 27 EU nations has been rejected three times by parliament and patience is wearing thin in Brussels as the deadline to end Britain’s 46-year membership nears with no agreement in sight.
The premier said Tuesday she would seek another “short” Brexit extension at an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on 10 April.
In a rushed parliamentary bid to avoid Britain leaving the EU without a divorce deal next Friday, MPs voted by the narrowest of margins late Wednesday in favour of draft legislation that would force the government to seek to delay Brexit beyond 12 April.
The vote passed by just one — 313 votes in favour and 312 against — in the lower House of Commons and the bill will now pass to the upper House of Lords for final approval on Thursday, much to the government’s annoyance.
“We are disappointed that MPs have chosen to back this bill,” a government spokesman said.
“The prime minister has already set out a clear process through which we can leave the European Union with a deal and we have already committed to seeking a further extension.
“If passed, this bill would place a severe constraint on the government’s ability to negotiate an extension and reflect this new date in UK statute books before 12 April.”
First talks ‘constructive’
May said Wednesday’s talks with Corbyn were “constructive”, suggesting she might be prepared to bend her previous principles and listen to proposals for much closer post-Brexit trade relations with the bloc than many Conservatives are prepared to accept.
Both sides showed “flexibility and a commitment to bring the current Brexit uncertainty to a close”, said a spokesman for May’s Downing Street office.
“We have agreed a programme of work to ensure we deliver for the British people, protecting jobs and security,” he added.
Corbyn said: “There hasn’t been as much change as I expected but we will have further discussions… to explore technical issues” on Thursday.
He told May that Labour wanted a customs union with the EU, access to its single market and raised “the option of a public vote to prevent crashing out or leaving on a bad deal”.
If the talks between the government and Labour fail to reach a compromise that both can support, May hopes the two sides can come up with mutually acceptable options that would be put up for binding parliamentary votes.
Long extension with option to leave
Britain could ask the European Union for a long Brexit delay that gives the option to leave as soon as a divorce deal is approved by parliament, finance minister Philip Hammond indicated on Wednesday.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Brussels that Britain would not get any further short delays unless its parliament ratified a deal by 12 April – the date set by EU leaders as the effective cut-off for avoiding the European Parliament elections.
Hammond said there did not have to be a vote on a deal by the 10 April EU summit and that while there would be big advantages to doing that it was probably unlikely.
“The important thing now is that in any extension that we get from the EU, we have an absolute clarity that as soon as we’ve done the deal, we are able to bring that extension to an end,” Hammond told ITV.
“So it’s less about the nominal length of time of the extension and more about the mechanism for bringing it to an end once the deal is done,” he said. “That would be our expectation.”
When asked if he was comfortable about a long extension, he said he was not comfortable about it but that the defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal meant “we are where we are.”
Hammond said he hoped talks with the opposition Labour Party would very quickly allow an understanding of whether a cross-party deal was viable.
“Some kind of customs arrangement is clearly going to be a part of the future structure,” Hammond said.
He said that if talks with Labour failed, the government would try to take ideas from the discussions and present them to parliament. If a deal was passed by the eve of the May elections, then they could be pulled, Hammond said.
The Sun newspaper said May would seek a delay of nine months.
As many as 15 ministers in May’s government are on the edge of resigning over her Brexit talks with the opposition Labour Party, The Sun reported.
Five of those considering resigning are cabinet ministers, the newspaper said.
“Many, many colleagues in government are just seething and a lot of us are on the edge now,” the newspaper quoted one unidentified minister as saying.
Merkel heads to Dublin
The British premier’s sudden change of tack was received with caution by EU leaders who wish to see the split resolved before the European Parliament elections begin on 23 May.
Finance minister Philip Hammond said it was an “expectation” that Brussels would offer a longer extension at the 10 April summit than the short one Britain is targeting, but London would want to curtail it as quickly as possible after passing a Brexit deal.
“It would be in everybody’s interest that we moved into the implementation period at that point,” he told ITV television.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was to visit Dublin on Thursday to meet Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar for talks on Brexit. She has vowed to “fight until the last hour” to avoid a no-deal outcome — something that would hit the UK’s only land neighbour Ireland hardest.