LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Theresa May and the leader of Britain’s main opposition party were due to meet Wednesday for talks on ending the impasse over the country’s departure from the European Union — a surprise about-face that left pro-Brexit members of May’s Conservative Party howling with outrage.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the government was not setting preconditions for the talks with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, but was also not offering a “blank check.”
“There will need to be compromise on all sides,” he said.
After failing repeatedly to win Parliament’s backing for her Brexit blueprint, May dramatically changed gear Tuesday, saying she would seek to delay Brexit — again — and hold talks with the opposition to seek a compromise.
“The country needs a solution, the country deserves a solution, and that’s what I’m working to find,” May told lawmakers on Wednesday.
Corbyn said he welcomed May’s “willingness to compromise to resolve the Brexit deadlock” and looked forward to talks with her later Wednesday.
May’s bid for cross-party talks points Britain toward a softer Brexit than the one she has championed since the June 2016 decision to leave the EU. Labour wants the U.K. to remain in a customs union with the bloc to ensure frictionless trade. May has always ruled that out, saying it would limit Britain’s ability to forge an independent trade policy.
But May’s Brexit deal with the EU has been rejected three times by Parliament, amid opposition from both pro-EU and pro-Brexit lawmakers.
Barclay said the “remorseless logic” of Parliament’s failure to back the prime minister’s deal was that the country was heading toward a softer form of Brexit.
“The alternative to that is no Brexit at all and I think that would be very damaging from a democracy point of view,” he told Parliament’s Brexit committee.
May’s decision to negotiate with Corbyn is risky for both the Conservatives and Labour, and could widen divisions over Brexit that run through both parties.
Labour is formally committed to enacting voters’ decision to leave the EU, but many of the party’s lawmakers want a new referendum that could keep Britain in the bloc. They will be angry if the party actively helps bring about Brexit.
The Conservatives are even more bitterly split between those who want to keep close economic ties with the EU and Brexiteers who say Britain must make a clean break in order to take control of its laws and trade policy.
The Brexit-backers condemned May’s shift. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Brexit “is becoming soft to the point of disintegration.” Ex-Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said he was “absolutely appalled” by May’s talks with Corbyn.
Junior Wales Minister Nigel Adams quit his post, sending the prime minister a letter criticizing her for seeking a deal with “a Marxist who has never once in his political life out British interests first” — a reference to the left-wing Corbyn.
“It is clear we will now end up in the customs union. That is not the Brexit my constituents were promised,” Adams wrote.
May’s change of plan came just days before Britain faced a disruptive no-deal departure from the EU. That would mean tariffs and other barriers to trade between Britain and the bloc, with the potential for border gridlock and shortages of goods.
The leaders of the EU’s 27 remaining countries have given the U.K. until April 12 to leave the bloc or to come up with a new plan, after British lawmakers three times rejected an agreement struck between the bloc and May late last year.
The House of Commons has also failed to find a majority for any alternative plan in two days of voting on multiple options.
European Council President Donald Tusk gave a cautious welcome to May’s change of course.
“Even if, after today, we don’t know what the end result will be, let us be patient,” he tweeted — a suggestion the EU would wait for Britain to present a clear plan.
The European Parliament’s Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt, tweeted that May’s move toward compromise was “better late than never.”
Meanwhile, pro-EU lawmakers are not banking on talks between May and Corbyn succeeding. A group of legislators intent on avoiding a no-deal Brexit are trying to ensure Britain cannot crash out of the EU, either by accident or by design.
A bill scheduled for debate Wednesday would compel May to seek to extend the Brexit process beyond April 12 in order to prevent a no-deal departure. Its backers hope to push the bill through into law before May attends a summit Wednesday in Brussels, where EU leaders expect to hear details of Britain’s new Brexit plan.
Follow AP’s full coverage of Brexit at: https://www.apnews.com/Brexit
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