UK Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to pave the way for accepting a softer Brexit on Tuesday (April 2), as she offered to enter talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in a bid to build cross-party support and break the Brexit impasse.
In a televised address after a seven-hour cabinet meeting on Tuesday, May said that she would request a further delay to the Article 50 process from EU leaders in a bid to strike a cross-party compromise.
“If we cannot agree on a single unified approach, then we would instead agree a number of options for the Future Relationship that we could put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue,” said May.
The Prime Minister added that her government would “abide by the decision” of UK MPs, and expressed hope that a Withdrawal Bill could be passed before 22 May so that the UK could leave the bloc without needing to take part in May’s European Parliamentary Elections.
The offer of the olive branch was accepted by the Labour leader, who said that “we will meet the prime minister. We recognise that she has made a move.”
Labour has demanded that the UK remain in a customs union with the EU, and kept open the option of a second referendum, although it, like May’s Conservative party, has also been divided by Brexit.
The Withdrawal Agreement brokered by May with the EU has been rejected three times by the House of Commons. However, despite two days of ‘indicative’ votes on eight alternative Brexit plans by MPs, none has been able to secure a majority, although proposals for the UK to stay in a permanent customs union or hold a second referendum came within a handful of votes.
May’s move to seek compromise rather than move ahead with a ‘no deal’ Brexit was met with dismay by some leading Brexiteers.
“It is very disappointing that the cabinet has decided to entrust the final handling of Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party,” said Boris Johnson, who led the Leave campaign in the June 2016 referendum.
“It now seems all too likely that British trade policy and key law-making powers will be handed over to Brussels – with no say for the UK.”
The UK government will need to request an extension to the Article 50 process at a European Council summit scheduled for 10 April. Without the agreement of EU leaders the UK will leave without a deal.
Although patience with the UK is wearing increasingly thin, most EU leaders struck a conciliatory tone following May’s move.
“Even if, after today, we don’t know what the end result will be, let us be patient,” tweeted Donald Tusk, the European Council president.
“Better late than never” was the verdict of Guy Verhofstadt, who chairs the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering group.
Earlier, both European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier and French president Emmanuel Macron had talked up the likelihood of a ‘no deal’ scenario, with Macron warning that the EU would not be “held hostage by the resolution of a political crisis in the UK”.
“A long extension, implying the UK takes part in European elections and European institutions, has nothing easy or automatic about it,” said Macron. “I say that again very strongly. Our priority must be the good functioning of the EU and the single market.”
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]