LONDON—Britain’s last-minute scramble to shape its exit from the European Union, its biggest policy upheaval in half a century, hit the rocks Jan. 17 as Prime Minister Theresa May and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dug in their heels for competing visions.
After May’s two-year attempt to forge an amicable divorce with an independent trade policy was crushed by Parliament in the biggest defeat for a British leader in modern history, May asked party leaders to forget self-interest to find a solution.
Yet there was little sign that either of the two major parties—which together hold 88 percent of the 650 seats in Parliament—were prepared to compromise.
Corbyn said May had sent Britain hurtling toward the cliff edge of a sudden exit on March 29 with no transition period, and urged her to ditch her “red lines.” But he repeated his own condition for talks: a pledge to block a “no-deal” Brexit.
“The government confirmed that she would not take ‘no-deal’ off the table,” Corbyn said in a speech in Hastings.
“So, I say to the prime minister again: I am quite happy to talk, but the starting point for any talks about Brexit must be that the threat of a disastrous no-deal outcome is ruled out.”
But the further May moves toward softening Brexit, the more she alienates dedicated Brexit supporters in her own Conservative party, who think the threat of a no-deal exit is a crucial bargaining chip and should anyway not be feared.
May’s spokeswoman said the prime minister had held “constructive” talks with lawmakers, including some from Labour, to explore ways of winning support for her deal.
If she fails to forge consensus, the world’s fifth-largest economy will drop out of the European Union on March 29 without a deal or will be forced to delay Brexit, possibly holding a national election or even another referendum.
Corbyn said that, under certain conditions, he would look at options including another referendum.
But a second referendum would take a year to organize, a source in May’s office said.