LONDON/BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May has yet to move the “red lines” that have blocked a deal for Britain to leave the EU, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Saturday, after May launched talks with him in a last-ditch bid to save Brexit.
With Britain due to leave the bloc on April 12 and no sign of her minority government being able to pass a deal through parliament on its own, May turned to Labour Party leader Corbyn in recent days in the hope of securing a bi-partisan agreement.
A deal with Corbyn could be May’s last chance to deliver Brexit without either a long delay or leaving with no deal at all. But Corbyn said the prime minister had yet to show the flexibility that Labour would need to say yes.
“I’m waiting to see the red lines move,” he told the BBC. “I hope we can reach a decision in parliament this week which will prevent a crashing out.”
No talks have been arranged yet between the two sides for this weekend, a Labour source told Reuters.
May’s decision to seek an agreement with Corbyn was an astounding reversal after months of saying her plan for Brexit was the only possible course. It reflects weeks of high drama in parliament that saw May’s deal rejected by a historic majority but no agreement emerge on an alternative plan.
While both major parties have said they are committed to carrying out the results of Britain’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU, Labour has long demanded a softer break than May has been willing to consider.
In particular, Labour seeks a customs union with the EU after Britain leaves, which would cross one of the “red lines” May set out at the start of negotiations by preventing Britain from setting its own trade tariffs.
Many Labour lawmakers also want a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, which May says would be a fundamental threat to Britain’s democracy after the vote to leave. Her decision to open talks with Labour infuriated Brexit supporters in May’s Conservative party and divided her cabinet.
With time running out, May has asked EU leaders to postpone Britain’s exit from the bloc until June 30. The EU, which gave her a two-week extension the last time she asked, insists she must first show a viable plan to secure agreement on her thrice-rejected divorce deal in the British parliament.
EU leaders have also indicated they would be more likely to offer a longer extension of up to a year, to avoid setting a firm new deadline in a few months’ time that would cause yet another cliff-edge crisis.
Finance minister Philip Hammond told reporters in Bucharest on Saturday he was “optimistic” of reaching some form of agreement with Labour and that the government had no red lines in the talks.
Hammond said he expected more exchanges of documents on Saturday between the government and Labour in a bid to reach a deal. He also signalled optimism about next Wednesday’s EU summit, saying most EU states agreed on a need to delay Brexit.
“Most of the colleagues that I am talking to accept we will need longer to complete this process,” he said on the sidelines of a meeting of European Union finance ministers.
Britons voted in 2016 by a 52 to 48 percent margin for Brexit. The two main parties, parliament and the nation at large remain profoundly split over the terms for departure, or even over whether to leave at all.
A delay in Brexit of more than a few months would require Britain to participate in May 23 elections to the European parliament. It is a prospect May and many in her Conservative party are anxious to avoid, fearing a backlash from voters.
“Going to the EU elections for the Conservative Party, or indeed for the Labour Party, and telling our constituents why we haven’t been able to deliver Brexit I think would be an existential threat,” junior education minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC radio on Saturday.
“I would go further and say...it would be the suicide note of the Conservative Party.”
Editing by Peter Graff