UK deadlock continues with competing visions for Brexit

Britain's last-minute scramble to shape its exit from the EU, its biggest policy upheaval in half a century, hit the rocks on Thursday as Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dug in their heels for competing visions.
Pro-Brexit campaigners demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London.
Pro-Brexit campaigners demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS, AFP) - Britain's last-minute scramble to shape its exit from the European Union, its biggest policy upheaval in half a century, hit the rocks on Thursday (Jan 17) as Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dug in their heels for competing visions.

Meanwhile in France, the government activated its plans for handling the effects of a no-deal Brexit, which Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said had become "less and less unlikely".

After Mrs May's two-year attempt to forge an amicable divorce with an independent trade policy was crushed by Parliament in the biggest defeat for a British leader in modern history, she asked party leaders yesterday to forget self-interest to find a solution.

Her demand came a day after she survived a no-confidence vote sparked by the crushing defeat of her Brexit deal.

Yet there was little sign yesterday that either of the two major parties - which together hold 88 per cent of the 650 seats in Parliament - were prepared to budge on key demands.

Mr Corbyn said Mrs May had sent Britain hurtling towards the cliff edge of a sudden exit on March 29 with no transition period, and urged her to ditch her "red lines".

But he repeated his own condition for talks: a pledge to block a no-deal Brexit.

"The government confirmed that she would not take 'no-deal' off the table," Mr Corbyn said in a speech in the English town of Hastings. "So I say to the Prime Minister again: I am quite happy to talk, but the starting point for any talks about Brexit must be that the threat of a disastrous no-deal outcome is ruled out."

But the further Mrs May moves towards softening Brexit, the more she alienates dedicated Brexit supporters in her own Conservative Party who think the threat of a no-deal exit is a crucial bargaining chip and should anyway not be feared.

If Mrs May fails to forge consensus, the world's fifth-largest economy will drop out of the EU on March 29 without a deal or will be forced to delay Brexit, possibly holding a national election or even another referendum.

Mr Corbyn said that, under certain conditions, he would look at options including another referendum.

Mrs May has refused to countenance another election, having lost her parliamentary majority in a snap poll in 2017 that left her reliant on the support of a small Northern Irish pro-Brexit party. She has repeatedly said another referendum would corrode faith in democracy among the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU in 2016.

"I believe it is my duty to deliver on the British people's instruction to leave the European Union. And I intend to do so," she said in a televised address.

Other members of the EU yesterday offered to talk.

"We will do everything we can so that Britain exits with, and not without, an agreement," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Berlin's Lower House of Parliament.

In France, Mr Philippe said his country would provide for €50 million (S$77 million) worth of investment in French ports and airports, which he said would be most affected by the changes needed in the event of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

But they can do little until London decides what it wants. British politicians have failed to find agreement on how or even whether to leave the EU.

If there is a solution, it may be for Parliament's backbenchers to find it. Mrs May will on Monday put forward a motion in Parliament on her proposed next steps.

Over the following week, lawmakers will be able to propose alternatives.

On Jan 29, they will debate these plans, and voting on them should indicate whether any of them could get majority support.

If a way forward emerges, Mrs May could then go back to the EU and seek changes to her deal.

Parliament would still need to vote on any new agreement.