Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday she would seek further talks with Brussels to try to salvage her Brexit deal, but was accused of offering nothing new to break the political deadlock just 10 weeks before Britain leaves the E.U.
M.P.s last week roundly rejected the divorce terms May agreed with the bloc, raising fresh fears that Britain could crash out with no deal on March 29. She responded by holding talks with opposition parties, but after they criticized her for being inflexible she has now returned her focus to winning over her own side.
Her Conservative M.P.s and their Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are deeply opposed to the “backstop” plan in the Brexit deal designed to keep open the Irish border. May told the House of Commons there could be “progress” in this area, saying: “I will be talking further this week to colleagues—including in the DUP… I will then take the conclusions of those discussion back to the E.U.”
She did not give details of what she might request from Brussels, but said she looked forward to exploring in more detail a proposal from Poland to put a five-year time limit on the backstop.
However, opposition parties accused her of refusing to accept that M.P.s had rejected her deal, and expressed doubt she could get the changes she needed to win them over. “The prime minister seems to be going through the motions of accepting the result but in reality is in deep denial,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Carolyn Fairbairn, from the CBI business lobby group, expressed dismay that May had not offered a clearer way forward. “The fundamentals have not changed. Parliament remains in deadlock while the slope to a cliff edge steepens,” she wrote on Twitter.
The International Monetary Fund meanwhile warned it was “imperative” to resolve the uncertainty, which it said posed a threat to the British and global economy.
E.U. leaders have warned May they will not reopen the withdrawal deal, the product of almost two years’ work, although they are prepared to discuss an accompanying political declaration on future ties.
Before M.P.s voted on the Brexit deal last week, the British prime minister tried and failed to persuade the E.U. to agree to a time limit on the “backstop.” But Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz broke ranks by suggesting a time-limit might be possible as a way to “unblock negotiations.”
“It would obviously be less favorable for Ireland than an indefinite backstop, but much more advantageous than no-deal Brexit,” he told the Rzeczpospolita newspaper. The backstop would keep open the Irish border if and until the E.U. and Britain agree new trade terms. But it could tie London to E.U. trade rules for years to come, while also creating a different status for the British province of Northern Ireland.
DUP lawmaker Nigel Dodds welcomed Czaputowicz’s comments and May’s “encouraging” statement. “The backstop is the problem and that is where the focus must lie,” he said.
However, the Polish proposal was immediately dismissed by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. “Putting a time limit on an insurance mechanism, which is what the backstop is, effectively means that it’s not a backstop at all,” he said.
May’s talks with other parties will continue this week, until M.P.s vote on Jan. 29 on a range of possible next steps—when there could be fireworks. Several groups of lawmakers are planning to table amendments to try to force May to stop Britain leaving the E.U. without a deal, or to delay the process.
Corbyn has refused to meet with May until she rules out “no deal,” but she said the only way to do this was to agree a deal—or stop Brexit altogether.
Britain would leave the E.U. in March as planned, she said, again rejecting the idea of another referendum, saying it would “damage social cohesion” if the 2016 vote were ignored. But she offered guarantees to the opposition Labor party on workers’ rights and promised greater input for lawmakers over future trade talks with the E.U. May also waived the fee that had been planned for millions of E.U. citizens living in Britain to apply for permanent status after Brexit.