British PM May courts opposition leader Corbyn as she plays for time to get a Brexit deal

Theresa May wrote a conciliatory letter to opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, after he proposed setting her a new deadline of Feb 26 for winning lawmakers' backing for a final exit deal.
Theresa May wrote a conciliatory letter to opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, after he proposed setting her a new deadline of Feb 26 for winning lawmakers' backing for a final exit deal. PHOTOS: AFP, EPA-EFE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking to buy herself more time to renegotiate her Brexit deal as Parliament threatens to take control over the process to stop the UK plunging out of the European Union with no agreement in place.

May wrote a conciliatory letter to opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, after he proposed setting her a new deadline of Feb 26 for winning lawmakers' backing for a final exit deal.

Lawmakers on all sides of the House of Commons are concerned that May's planning to run down the clock to Britain's scheduled exit day on March 29, risking a potentially disastrous divorce without an agreement in place.

The premier will try to mollify her critics and earn herself another two weeks' of breathing space, with the promise of further opportunities to have a say over what happens next if she can't get a deal by Feb 27.

In just over six weeks the UK will leave the EU - with or without an agreement. May's draft withdrawal contract was rejected by a huge margin in Parliament last month. No new plan has so far been devised.

Last week May reopened talks with the EU, attempting to change the fallback plan for avoiding a hard Irish border, the so-called backstop.

LIMITED SCOPE

But her scope for achieving the kind of wide-ranging re-draft that she needs seems severely limited. EU leaders, including the Irish premier Leo Varadkar, are refusing to water down the backstop guarantee, despite the UK parliament calling for the policy to be scrapped.

 
 
 
 

In her letter to Corbyn, May avoided the usual combative tone that characterises the exchanges between the two competitors, declaring herself "grateful" to her opponent for meeting her last week and for his offer of further talks to break the deadlock.

She promised to discuss his ideas for keeping closer ties to the EU than she's proposed, while working together to resolve the contentious Irish backstop.

May questioned Corbyn's demand for a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union that includes a say in future trade deals, while stopping short of rejecting it completely.

The prime minister is aiming to allay politicians' concern that, unless they vote to take control of the process this week - and order her to seek an extension of EU negotiations beyond March 29 - they will have lost their chance to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

PLAN B

If, as expected, May doesn't secure concessions from the EU by Wednesday, Parliament will vote again on plan B options the following day. May aims to ask the House of Commons to restate its demand to remove the backstop clause from the Withdrawal Agreement, according to an official with knowledge of her plans, who asked not to be identified.

She'll also promise that if she hasn't a renegotiated deal to Parliament by Feb 27 there'll be another opportunity for it to vote on what should happen next.

The political wrangling will do little to reassure British business though. Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, told Sky "we really are in the emergency zone of Brexit now" with some businesses already leaving the country.

Meanwhile, economists surveyed by Bloomberg said the chance of a UK recession in the 12 months has risen to almost one-in-three.