LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May will try to thrash out a Brexit compromise with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday, a gamble that could see a European Union divorce deal finally clear parliament but also tear her party apart.
The United Kingdom was supposed to leave the EU last Friday, but three years after Britons voted for Brexit in a referendum, it is still unclear how, when or even if it will exit the bloc.
After her EU withdrawal deal was rejected three times by lawmakers, with parliament and her Conservative Party hopelessly divided over Brexit, May said on Tuesday she would talk to Corbyn in a bid to overcome what is now a national crisis.
However, by approaching Corbyn, a veteran socialist deeply disliked by many Conservatives and mocked by May herself as unfit to govern, she risks enflaming Conservative divisions. One minister quit on Wednesday.
“It now seems that you and your cabinet have decided that a deal – cooked up with a Marxist who has never once in his political life, put British interests first – is better than no deal,” Nigel Adams said as he resigned as a minister for Wales.
A hardcore eurosceptic group of Conservative has refused to back the divorce deal she struck with the EU, saying it did not represent a decisive break with Europe.
Her decision to turn to Labour, which wants to stay in a customs union with the EU, may make a “soft” Brexit that keeps Britain’s economy closely aligned to the world’s biggest trading bloc more likely.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the government would accept a soft Brexit if lawmakers voted for it.
“If an agreement is reached between the two respective leaders then my expectation is that there would then be a stable majority to deliver on that,” he told a parliamentary committee.
Sterling rose on hopes for a softer Brexit, hitting its highest level since March 28.
May also said on Tuesday she would seek another delay – “as short as possible” – to the current Brexit date of April 12. She
has repeatedly said she did not want an extension which would see Britain having to take part in European Parliament elections on May 23.
European Council President Donald Tusk said it was not certain how European leaders would view her request. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said there was currently no reason to agree an extension. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Ireland would support a delay.
As it stands, Britain will still leave the EU on April 12 without a deal, something many Conservative lawmakers would like to happen but a scenario businesses fear could wreak chaos and cause huge economic damage.
A survey of services firms ranging from banks to high-street hairdressers on Wednesday suggested the world’s fifth-biggest economy was likely to shrink in the coming months because of Brexit uncertainty.
A cross-party group of British lawmakers will try on Wednesday try to rush through legislation in parliament to make such an outcome impossible.
May and Corbyn may well struggle to find a compromise position that can satisfy their own parties.
“I realise some of you will be concerned about the government discussing the way forward with the opposition,” May said in a letter to Conservative lawmakers on Wednesday.
“However, with some colleagues unwilling to support the government…this is the only way to deliver the smooth, orderly Brexit that we promised.”
The Conservatives have been divided over Europe for three decades, leading to the demise of three former prime ministers, David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
Labour is far from united itself. Many supporters want the party to throw its weight behind a second referendum but some Labour lawmakers, who represent areas that voted strongly to leave the EU, are against.
Corbyn, who voted against joining the bloc in 1975, has said Brexit should include a customs union with the EU and protection for consumer and environmental standards, and workers’ rights.
IT’S A TRAP
One pro-EU Labour lawmaker, Ben Bradshaw, said he had concerns about the risks of getting into talks with May.
“It is clearly a trap designed to try to get May’s terrible deal through, which some people have fallen for, but Labour mustn’t,” he wrote on Twitter.
It is also unclear where May’s last-ditch attempt to get a Brexit deal through will leave her minority government.
She has promised to step down if her withdrawal agreement is passed by parliament and her overture to Corbyn has alienated some Conservatives still further.
“She needs to take a long look in the mirror and for the good of our country, our democracy and the Conservative Party she needs to go now,” lawmaker Andrew Bridgen told Sky News.
The Democratic Unionist Party, the small Northern Irish party on whose support May relies on to govern, was also wary.
Additional reporting by Elisabeth O’Leary and David Milliken; Writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan