- Prime Minister Theresa May said on Tuesday that she would ask for a short Brexit delay from the European Union.
- The prime minister said she would use the delay to hold talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn about forging a compromise deal and avoiding a longer extension.
- She opened the door to softening her red lines on leaving the customs union.
- The announcement risks triggering Cabinet resignations and a major rebellion among Conservative MPs.
LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May said on Tuesday that she would ask the European Union for a short Brexit delay to seek a new compromise deal with opposition parties and “break the logjam.”
“We will need a further extension of Article 50, one that is as short as possible and which ends when we pass a deal,” May said.
The United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the EU on April 12.
May said she would reach out to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to find a compromise allowing her deal to pass in the coming days and avoiding a longer extension that would force the UK to take part in the European Parliament elections next month.
“I am offering to sit down with the leader of the opposition and to try to agree a plan that we would both stick to, to ensure that we leave the European Union and that we do so with a deal,” May said.
Corbyn welcomed the offer, saying he would be “very happy” to meet the prime minister for talks.
“We will meet the prime minister,” Corbyn said.
“We recognise that she has made a move; I recognise my responsibility to represent the people that supported Labour in the last election and the people who didn’t support Labour but nevertheless want certainty and security for their own future, and that’s the basis on which we will meet her and we will have those discussions.”
Any compromise would not involve renegotiating the EU withdrawal agreement, May said, but could involve a rewrite of the accompanying political declaration which acts as a guide to Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
She added that if the two leaders were unable to agree, she would stage more Brexit votes among MPs to find a compromise position.
“Crucially, the government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House,” she said.
The prime minister spoke at 10 Downing Street after a marathon meeting with Cabinet ministers that lasted over seven hours.
Conservative Brexiteers reacted furiously to May’s statement.
Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in a tweet: “It is very disappointing that the Cabinet has decided to entrust the final handling of Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. 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 U.K.”
The chairman of the anti-EU European Research Group, Jacob Rees-Mogg, warned that the party would rebel against the prime minister.
“You do find that leaders who decide to go with the opposition rather than their own party find their own party doesn’t plainly follow,” Rees-Mogg said.
“I’m not sure this is the way to conciliate people to persuade them if they haven’t moved already to move at this stage. I think getting the support of a known Marxist is not likely to instil confidence in Conservatives.”
Business leaders cautiously welcomed the announcement.
“The Prime Minister’s statement was a welcome step towards compromise, but there are still many obstacles on the path ahead,” Edwin Morgan, the interim director general of the Institute of Directors, said in a statement.
“There was a clear indication of how the Government sees the next steps unfolding but time is of the essence and the outcome of all this is still far from clear.
“The brinkmanship has gone on for far too long and business leaders want our politicians to put an end to this miserable uncertainty. We urge the Leader of the Opposition to work with the Prime Minister to find a solution. Both sides must play ball.”
What could May’s compromise look like?
Chief among the demands Corbyn is likely to make is for Britain to remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit. This is hugely controversial within the Conservative Party and May’s Cabinet and could lead to senior Cabinet resignations.
Corbyn’s demands are unlikely to end there, with Labour keen on a much closer relationship with the EU single market than May is likely to offer.
Corbyn’s party also voted this week for a so-called confirmatory referendum on any deal Parliament passes. It remains highly unlikely that May’s government would agree to that.
However, May’s statement is a significant sign of movement after months of refusing to give ground to her opponents.
Whether it is too little, too late, remains to be seen.
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