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Britain totters on Brexit cliff-edge as Corbyn signals futility of talks

Vidya Ram LONDON | Updated on May 17, 2019 Published on May 17, 2019

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party in London, Britain   -  REUTERS

May’s exit schedule may now have to be advanced

Hopes that cross-party talks could navigate a way through the Brexit stalemate were dashed as Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that these negotiations had gone as far as they could do, and would now end without an agreement.

The talks, which began in March, after the EU agreed to push the Brexit deadline out to October 31, had been widely seen as the way in which Prime Minister Theresa May could get Parliament on board her controversial withdrawal agreement; their end will exacerbate concerns that Britain could be heading towards another Brexit cliff edge.

Policy gaps

This is all the more so as May has started the countdown to the end of her premiership as she agreed to set a timetable for her departure after the second reading of the withdrawal agreement bill, due to go before MPs in the first week of June. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Corbyn said that while talks had been detailed, constructive, and involving a lot of effort on both sides, significant policy gaps remained amid a Conservative failure to compromise on some of Labour’s key asks, particularly around Customs union membership and guarantees that Britain’s standards for environmental and worker protection would remain at European levels.

Also read: As Brexit nears, UK economy flat-lines

In addition, he cited concerns that May’s successor would not honour any commitments made by her, once they were elected.

Both May and Corbyn have faced criticism from members of their party over the talks, greatly limiting the scope for compromise. This meant that the government was only willing to offer Customs union membership till the next election, and limited guarantees around worker and environmental rights.

Backstop arrangements

Corbyn has faced pressure to insist that any deal would have to be the subject of a confirmatory public vote or second referendum, as well as pressure from other sections of his party, who have warned they could lose votes in northern constituencies that voted heavily to leave the EU.

“There isn’t a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit or hold a second referendum, which could reverse it,” May said during a party rally on Friday. Many Conservative MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland continue to oppose May’s withdrawal deal with the EU, with concerns centering on the backstop arrangements that would put the UK in a Customs union with the EU if future talks broke down to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.

Combative stance

With these concerns as alive as ever, talks with Labour had been seen as a way in which May could move forward. However, with these talks at an end, the chances of the withdrawal bill passing its second reading in June will have fallen even further, making it likely that May will have to set her exit date earlier rather than later.

While a large number of candidates are expected to attempt to fill May’s shoes, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is the favourite to become her successor, and has adopted a far more combative stance towards the EU negotiations, insisting that Britain could easily withstand a no-deal Brexit.

 

For more: Brexit

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Published on May 17, 2019
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