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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Theresa May courts Jeremy Corbyn as she plays for time to get a Brexit deal

Britain's prime minister wrote a conciliatory letter to the opposition leader as Brexit deadline looms

Britain's prime minister, Theresa May. Reuters
Britain's prime minister, Theresa May. Reuters

British Prime Minister Theresa May is seeking to buy herself more time to renegotiate her Brexit deal as the UK Parliament threatens to take control of the process to stop the country plunging out of the European Union with no agreement in place.

The prime minister wrote a conciliatory letter to opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, after he proposed setting her a new deadline of February 26 for winning MPs’ backing for a final exit deal.

MPs on all sides of the House of Commons are concerned that Mrs May is planning to run down the clock to Britain’s scheduled exit day on March 29, risking a potentially disastrous divorce without an agreement in place.

The premier will try to mollify her critics and earn herself another two weeks’ breathing space, with the promise of further opportunities to have a say over what happens next if she cannot get a deal by February 27.

In just over six weeks the UK will leave the EU – with or without an agreement. Mrs May’s draft withdrawal contract was rejected by a huge margin in Parliament last month. No new plan has so far been devised.

Last week Mrs May reopened talks with the EU, attempting to change the fallback plan for avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the so-called backstop.

But her scope for achieving the kind of wide-ranging re-draft that she needs seems severely limited. EU leaders, including the Irish leader Leo Varadkar, are refusing to water down the backstop guarantee, despite the UK parliament calling for the policy to be scrapped.

In her letter to Mr Corbyn, Mrs May avoided the usual combative tone that characterises exchanges between the two party leaders, declaring herself “grateful” to her opponent for meeting her last week and for his offer of further talks to break the deadlock.

She promised to discuss his ideas for keeping closer ties to the EU than she has proposed, while working together to resolve the contentious Irish backstop.

Mrs May questioned Mr Corbyn’s demand for a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union that includes a say in future trade deals, while stopping short of rejecting it completely.

The prime minister is aiming to allay politicians’ concern that, unless they vote to take control of the process this week – and order her to seek an extension of EU negotiations beyond March 29 – they will have lost their chance to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

If, as expected, Mrs May does not secure concessions from the EU by Wednesday, Parliament will vote again on plan B options the following day. Mrs May aims to ask the House of Commons to restate its demand to remove the backstop clause from the Withdrawal Agreement, according to an official.

She will also promise that if she has not put a renegotiated deal to Parliament by February 27 there will be another opportunity for it to vote on what should happen next.

The political wrangling will do little to reassure British businesses though. Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, told Sky News “we really are in the emergency zone of Brexit now”, with some businesses already leaving the country. Meanwhile, economists surveyed by Bloomberg said the chance of a UK recession in the 12 months has risen to almost one in three.

Updated: February 11, 2019 09:33 AM

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