Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, returns inside after delivering a speech, after winning a confidence vote in Parliament, outside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

Brexit Battle Lines Harden as May Stumbles in Search for a Deal

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May’s bid to break Britain’s Brexit gridlock faltered Thursday after she refused to give up her red lines to reach a compromise with her political opponents.

Less than 24 hours after the prime minister started talks with senior politicians from six parties in Parliament, she was locked in a political stalemate with the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.
May is trying to resuscitate her Brexit deal after Parliament voted it down in a landslide defeat Tuesday. She’s meeting with the heads of rival parties in an effort to find a way forward, but in a letter Corbyn demanded that May rule out the possibility of a no-deal exit before he’ll even meet with her.

Brexit Battle Lines Harden as May Stumbles in Search for a Deal

May wrote back, saying Corbyn’s precondition was “impossible” and she told a group of pro-Brexit Conservatives Thursday that she wouldn’t rule out a no-deal exit, delay Brexit day or keep Britain in a customs union with the EU, according to people familiar with the matter.

Far from taking a no-deal off the table, the U.K. government put military reserves on standby to help prepare for it. The European Union also said it’s stepping up preparations for a no-deal Brexit, after U.K. politicians resoundingly rejected the deal it struck with May in November. The European Commission’s deputy secretary-general is planning to tour EU capitals to discuss their no-deal plans.

With 70 days to go before the U.K. is due to leave the 28-nation trading bloc and no deal agreed, there’s growing speculation May will need to delay Brexit. While the government said Thursday that March 29 remains its planned exit day, countries including Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal have all floated the prospect publicly of an extension of the Brexit process under Article 50 of the EU treaty.

Even though Corbyn refused to meet the prime minister, she was planning to talk with Labour backbenchers and Hilary Benn, who chairs Parliament’s Brexit committee, and Yvette Cooper. The prime minister and her team also met with the leaders of five other parties: the Scottish National Party, Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, as well as Northern Ireland’s DUP.

In another fast day of developments:

  • May canceled her plans to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos next week while she focuses on delivering Brexit
  • Electronics company Royal Philips NV said it will close a factory in the U.K. next year that employs about 1,500 people
  • The government shared research with MPs on a second referendum in a bid to prove the decision would be unfeasible
  • The government confirmed Parliament will vote on May’s Brexit Plan B on Jan. 29
  • The People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum published results of a snap YouGov poll that shows support for remaining in the EU surging to a post-2016 record.

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