Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, departs the courtyard of Elysee Palace in Paris, France. (Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg)

May Aims to Reopen EU Brexit Talks to Win Corbyn's Support

(Bloomberg) --

Theresa May is promising to reopen Brexit talks with the European Union to try to breathe life back into negotiations with the opposition Labour Party and take the U.K. out of the bloc by the summer.

The prime minister’s office said Sunday the government will explore with the EU this week how to rewrite the outline political agreement on future customs ties, even as a senior Labour official warned that the party’s members of Parliament wouldn’t back a deal without a second referendum.

The EU has said it’s willing to make changes to the political declaration, the non-binding part of the Brexit deal that focuses on future ties. It has refused to reopen the divorce deal itself, which includes the controversial Irish border backstop. The U.K. government isn’t asking to renegotiate that part.

The premier is under mounting pressure over her failure to complete the U.K.’s divorce from the 28-nation bloc, with a growing number of Conservative politicians calling on her to resign as the party’s popularity slumps in the polls. Many of them hate the fact that May asked Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for help after Parliament voted three times to reject her Brexit deal with Brussels.

A meeting is scheduled for Monday involving Labour officials and the senior government negotiating team -- including May’s de facto deputy David Lidington and her chief of staff Gavin Barwell. They are due to bring together all the work and proposals from the past month of talks, May’s officials said.

Obstacles

There are significant obstacles to a deal, though May has indicated in recent weeks the two sides are not far apart on Labour’s key demands, particularly on protecting workers’ rights and the environment, and on close post-Brexit customs arrangements with the EU. The government is still likely to balk at the full customs union that Corbyn wants.

May Aims to Reopen EU Brexit Talks to Win Corbyn's Support

May had ruled this out, arguing that it would prevent the U.K. from striking free-trade deals with non-EU countries -- a key goal of pro-Brexit campaigners in her Conservative Party. May must decide how much ground she can give in talks without hemorrhaging too many votes from her own side.

The Times newspaper reported Monday that Cabinet ministers including Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and Business Secretary Greg Clark are preparing to call on May to abandon the Labour talks. They want her to move instead to votes on Plan B options in Parliament, which the government has said will follow if negotiations with the opposition fail.

Meanwhile Labour has its own divisions. The party’s chief Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, and Deputy Leader Tom Watson both said a cross-party Brexit deal was unlikely to get through Parliament without a second referendum attached.

“A significant number of Labour MPs, probably 120 if not 150, would not back a deal if it hasn’t got a confirmatory vote,” Starmer told the Guardian newspaper. Watson, for his part, told BBC radio on Monday that "the way out of this is a confirmatory ballot on Theresa May’s deal, whatever that looks like."

Demands

Corbyn has resisted demands from party members to make a second referendum the price of Labour’s support for a deal, as he tries to avoid alienating Labour supporters in constituencies that voted to leave the EU.

But Starmer said he feared the party’s loss of seats in this month’s local elections showed that Labour risks losing both leave and remain voters.

“There is concern in leave areas about whether some of our voters might vote for other parties, but I think there is an increasing concern that some of the Labour remain voters might not vote Labour,” he said in the Guardian interview. “It is very important that we learn those lessons.”

May Aims to Reopen EU Brexit Talks to Win Corbyn's Support

Amid the impasse, both of the U.K.’s major parties have suffered in opinion polls. Following its disastrous showing in the local elections, the Conservative Party faces another beating in European Parliament elections on May 23.

According to an Opinium survey for the Observer newspaper, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party -- founded only last month -- would take 34% of the vote, compared with just 11% for the Tories and 21% for Labour.

That at least party explains why May, who didn’t want the U.K. to take part in the EU elections, is desperate to get her Brexit bill through Parliament in time for the U.K. to leave the bloc before the newly elected MEPs take their seats in July.

Much will depend on what new offer May is willing to make.

Now, the government is considering compromise options for a customs union, including a temporary arrangement to last until the next general election, which is scheduled to take place in 2022. That falls short of what Corbyn is pushing for.

In the coming days, the government will explore with the EU when talks could reopen on making changes to the political declaration on future ties, May’s office said. This would be to discuss possible revisions to the text to take account of any deal May’s team reaches with Labour -- specifically on customs arrangements, environmental protections and workers’ rights.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.