May 17, 2019
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street for her weekly Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons in London, Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
LONDON – Talks between Britain’s Conservative government and the opposition Labour Party seeking a compromise over Brexit broke down without agreement Friday, plunging the country back into a morass of uncertainty over its departure from the European Union.
Each side blamed the other for the collapse. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the talks with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government had “gone as far as they can.”
“We have been unable to bridge important policy gaps between us,” Corbyn said in a letter to May released by Labour.
And with May set to announce within weeks that she plans to step down, Corbyn said divisions within the ruling Conservative Party meant “it’s a government that is negotiating with no authority and no ability, that I can see, to actually deliver anything.”
But May said divisions within the Labour Party had contributed to the breakdown.
“In particular, we have not been able to overcome the fact that there isn’t a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit or hold a second referendum, which could reverse it,” she said.
May’s spokesman, James Slack, confirmed the two sides had not reached “complete agreement” and that no further talks were planned.
The two sides have held weeks of negotiations to try to agree upon terms for Brexit that can win support in Parliament. The talks began after British lawmakers rejected May’s divorce deal with the EU three times.
But the Conservatives and the left-of-center Labour differ on how close an economic relationship to seek with the EU after the U.K. leaves the bloc. Labour wants to stick close to EU rules in order to guarantee seamless trade, while the government wants a looser relationship that would leave Britain freer to strike new trade deals around the world.
Britain was due to leave the EU on March 29, but amid the political impasse in the country, the EU extended the Brexit deadline until Oct. 31.
That deadlock has deepened this week with the breakdown of the cross-party talks and intensifying pressure on May from within the Conservative Party to quit.
Pro-Brexit Conservatives are furious that Britain hasn’t yet left the EU, almost three years after voters backed Brexit in a referendum. Many of them blame May and want her replaced with a more staunchly pro-Brexit leader such as former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
On Thursday, May agreed to set out a timetable for her departure early next month, raising the prospect that Britain will get a new prime minister before it leaves the EU.
Her resignation, when it comes, will trigger a party leadership contest in which any Conservative lawmaker can run. The winner will become party leader and prime minister of the U.K. without the need for a general election.
Several members of May’s Cabinet have already started unofficial leadership campaigns, including Johnson, who told a business event Thursday that “of course I’m going to go for it.”
The prime minister said she was considering a series of votes in Parliament on different Brexit options to see if any can gain majority backing.
May also plans to make a fourth attempt to get lawmakers’ backing for Brexit terms by putting a withdrawal agreement bill to a vote during the week of June 3. She says that if it passes, Britain could leave the EU in July, well before the October deadline set by the bloc.
May said Friday that British lawmakers “will be faced with a stark choice: that is to vote to … deliver Brexit, or to shy away again from delivering Brexit with all the uncertainty that that would leave.”
But it’s unclear how the government plans to persuade a majority of lawmakers to back May’s EU divorce terms, since few on either side of the Brexit divide seem prepared to change their positions.
Pro-Brexit politicians think the withdrawal agreement keeps Britain bound too closely to the EU’s rules, while pro-Europeans think it relinquishes many of the benefits of EU membership.
Corbyn said Friday that “without significant changes, we will continue to oppose the government’s deal, as we do not believe it safeguards jobs, living standards and manufacturing industry in Britain.”
Gregory Katz in London contributed.