LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May scrambled to put together a new Brexit strategy on Thursday with cross-party talks after MPs sparked political turmoil by rejecting her previous agreement with the EU.
May reached out to rival parties on Wednesday night shortly after surviving a no-confidence vote, hoping to hammer out a Brexit fix that she could present to parliament on Monday.
Just over two months remain before the world’s fifth-largest economy is due to leave the EU, its closest trading partner, after 46 years.
But the island nation is still embroiled in many of the same arguments that were raging when voters defied government warnings and voted to leave in a 2016 referendum.
May’s olive branch offer came after a hectic 24 hours that saw her Brexit deal defeated by a historic margin in one vote and her government then cling on to power in a second one, by a narrow margin of 325 to 306.
May conceded in a Wednesday night television address to the nation that Britons might find the political upheaval “unsettling.”
She called on the opposition Labour party and its smaller pro-EU allies “to put self-interest aside” and attempt to find a solution to end the deadlock.
“The government approaches these meetings in a constructive spirit and I urge others to do the same,” she said.
But May ran into immediate hurdles as top MPs set out demands and conditions contradictory to the government’s current stance.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would only sit down with May if she ruled out the possibility of a “no-deal Brexit.”
That scenario would see trade barriers go up overnight as existing agreements between Britain and the EU expire on March 29.
May’s meetings late Wednesday with top MPs from the pro-EU Liberal Democratic Party and the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties also yielded fresh demands.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) is trying to rule out “no-deal” and secure a second referendum, which could only be held if Brexit is postponed.
“For any discussion between your government and the SNP to be meaningful, these options must be on the table,” SNP parliament leader Ian Blackford said in a letter to May released after their meeting.
But Liberal Democrat chief Vince Cable said May showed a strong desire to engage with her parliamentary foes.
“I think in the current state of crisis that is a positive,” Cable told BBC Radio.
May herself hinted on Wednesday that Brexit might be postponed if London rallies around a single set of proposals that it could present to the other 27 EU leaders.
She told parliament that Brussels would allow this “if it was clear that there was a plan toward moving toward an agreed deal.”
The British pound has rallied over the course of the week on expectations of a delay to Brexit.
Such a postponement would stop the UK immediately crashing out of the world’s largest single market.
But May has so far stuck to two Brexit principles that — if broken — could see more members of her own Conservative party revolt: limiting EU migration and pursuing an independent trade policy.
Both of those red lines are at odds with opposition hopes for membership of an EU customs union or its single market.
“We can’t stay in the current EU customs union,” Conservative party chairman Brandon Lewis told BBC Radio.