Britain’s government redoubled its efforts Thursday to win over the main opposition party in a last-gasp bid to avoid a chaotic exit from the European Union next week.
The latest round of cross-party talks came after lawmakers tried to safeguard against a doomsday ending to the 46-year partnership by fast-tracking a bill Wednesday night seeking to delay Brexit.
May is racing against the clock in a desperate search for votes that could push her ill-loved divorce deal with the other 27 EU leaders through parliament on the fourth attempt.
Her Downing Street office noted the situation’s “urgency” and said the sides were engaged in “intensive discussions” aimed at nailing down an elusive breakthrough compromise.
Britain’s latest Brexit deadline is April 12 and resistance to May’s plan remains passionately strong.
But increasingly weary EU leaders — tired of Britain’s political drama and eager to focus on Europe’s own problems — want to see either a done deal or a new way forward from the UK government before they all meet in Brussels on Wednesday.
The British premier’s European counterparts will decide whether to grant her request to push back Brexit until May 22 — the day before nations begin electing a new European Parliament.
One alternative is to force her to accept a much longer extension that could give Britain time to rethink Brexit and possibly reverse its decision to leave.
The other is to let Britain go without a deal on April 12 in the hope that the economic disruption is short-lived and worth the price of eliminating long-term Brexit uncertainties.
– ‘Time for decisions’ –
May dramatically ended her courtship of her own Conservative Party’s holdouts and resistant Northern Irish allies by turning to the main opposition Labour Party this week.
She met Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday for a reported 100 minutes of talks both sides described as “cordial” but inconclusive.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Thursday welcomed the cross-party effort to resolved the deadlock.
“It’s time for decisions,” he tweeted.
But May’s decision to hear out Corbyn’s demands for a closer post-Brexit alliance with the bloc that includes membership of its customs union has enraged Britain’s right wing and seen two junior ministers resign.
One senior minister said May had no other choice.
“It’s very simple — there’s nowhere else to go,” the unnamed cabinet minister told the news website Politico.
Pro-European members of May’s team insisted it was time to compromise on long-standing beliefs for the benefit of a safe resolution of Britain’s biggest crisis in decades.
“There is going to be pain on both sides,” finance minister Philip Hammond told ITV.
Yet even some members of May’s own cabinet publicly questioned the wisdom of putting Brexit’s fate in the hands of the Conservative Party’s eternal rivals.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock — tipped as one of several potential successors to May — told BBC radio that Corbyn was “a Marxist who never once in his political life put British interests first”.
– Second referendum talk –
May and Corbyn have competing visions of Britain’s place in Europe and neither has shown much willingness to compromise in the past.
The Times newspaper quoted an unnamed government source as saying that May’s office thought it more likely than not that the negotiations would fail.
May has resisted the customs union idea because it bars Britain from striking its own independent trade agreements with nations such as China and the United States.
And Corbyn is under pressure from Labour’s pro-EU wing to push for a second referendum that would pit May’s final agreement against the option of staying in the bloc.
Corbyn has shied away from backing another vote due in part to his own sceptical view of Brussels.
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said on his arrival for Thursday’s talks that “we have been discussing” holding another referendum with May’s government.
But 25 Labour lawmakers warned Corbyn in a letter that support for a referendum would “reduce our chances of winning a general election”.