May under fire in hunt for Brexit compromise

LONDON • Both Theresa May’s government and the Opposition Labour Party said on Sunday that their talks represented the best chance of finding a Brexit solution and ending months of deadlock.

But even as David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, said there was common ground between the two sides, a former leader of May’s Conservative Party called on her to end the discussions, pull Britain out of the European Union (EU) and then resign as prime minister (PM).

Parliament is in recess until April 23, but the negotiations will continue. Lidington told the BBC on Sunday that the talks involved “testing” possible solutions, and both sides will have to make concessions.

Lidington said the government believed it would be possible to get “the benefits of a customs union” — which Labour wants — “but still have a flexibility for the UK to pursue an independent trade policy on top of that”. He avoided a question about whether the UK could sign up to a common external tariff.

Neither May, nor Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has much room for compromise. On the Labour side, the leader is under pressure to insist on another referendum as the price for supporting any deal. The PM, meanwhile, saw little sign over the weekend that rebels in her Conservative Party are in a mood to give ground.

Instead, former leader Iain Duncan Smith told Sky News that he’d seen signs the EU was ready to give way on the question of the Irish border, and that even if it weren’t, May should take the UK out of the bloc without a deal. The PM should “aim everything” toward getting the UK out of the EU before the May 23 European elections and the departure date of May or June that May had originally planned should “still stand”, he said.

Within Labour, too, there are divisions. While most Labour MPs support a second referendum, with the goal of stopping Brexit, a minority who represent seats that voted to leave the EU said that would be a mistake. Corbyn — a lifelong opponent of EU membership — supports this side, but is under pressure. His transport spokesman Andy McDonald told Sky News that the best option is seeing if the talks delivered a solution.

“I want to see where those discussions and negotiations take us before we can go on to the next stage of this long and awful process,” he said.

McDonald said Labour’s concern is that any commitments May made in the talks could be overturned by her successor. Lidington said this is unlikely, because the arithmetic in Parliament, which has so restricted May, will be the same for the next PM.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4 from Japan, where the government is trying reassure businesses about Brexit, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the talks with the Opposition are “more detailed and more constructive than people have been expecting on both sides”. But he cautions that they may not work, and the Conservative Party may yet have to try to rebuild its alliance with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to get a divorce deal done.

Hunt, who met PM Shinzo Abe and executives from Toyota Motor Corp before scheduled talks with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp, said he impressed on them the government’s commitment to resolve Brexit as soon as possible. The priority is to get the divorce over the line before May 23 to avoid having to take party in European Parliament elections, he said.

“It is absolutely clear that Brexit paralysis, if it continues for a long time, will be highly damaging to our international standing,” he said. — Bloomberg