LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May and the leader of Britain's main opposition party were due to meet Wednesday for talks on ending the impasse over the country's departure from the European Union — a surprise about-face that left pro-Brexit members of May's Conservative Party howling with outrage.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the government was not setting preconditions for the talks with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, but was also not offering a “blank check.”
“There will need to be compromise on all sides,” he said.
The exact timing for the meeting between May and Corbyn wasn't immediately specified, but it will probably take place Wednesday afternoon.
After failing repeatedly to win Parliament's backing for her Brexit blueprint, May dramatically changed gear Tuesday, saying she would seek to delay Brexit and hold talks with the opposition to seek a compromise.
May said the country needs “national unity to deliver the national interest.”
That points Britain toward a softer Brexit than the one May has championed since the June 2016 decision to leave the EU. Labour wants the U.K. to remain in a customs union with the bloc to ensure frictionless trade. May has always ruled that out, saying it would limit Britain's ability to forge an independent trade policy.
But May's Brexit deal with the EU has been rejected three times by Parliament.
Barclay said the “remorseless logic” of Parliament's failure to back the prime minister's deal was that the country was heading toward a softer form of Brexit.
“The alternative to that is no Brexit at all and I think that would be very damaging from a democracy point of view,” he told Parliament's Brexit committee.
May's government and the Conservative Party are split between those who want to keep close economic ties with the EU, and Brexiteers who say Britain must make a clean break in order to take control of its laws and trade policy.
The Brexit-backers condemned May's shift. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Brexit “is becoming soft to the point of disintegration.”
Junior Wales Minister Nigel Adams quit his post, sending the prime minister a letter criticizing her for seeking a deal with “a Marxist who has never once in his political life out British interests first” — a reference to the left-wing Corbyn.
“It is clear we will now end up in the customs union. That is not the Brexit my constituents were promised,” Adams wrote.
May's change of plan came just days before Britain faced a disruptive no-deal departure from the EU. That would mean tariffs and other barriers to trade between Britain and the bloc, with the potential for border gridlock and shortages of goods.
The leaders of the EU's 27 remaining countries have given the U.K. until April 12 to leave the bloc or to come up with a new plan, after British lawmakers three times rejected an agreement struck between the bloc and May late last year.
The House of Commons has also failed to find a majority for any alternative plan in two days of voting on multiple options.
European Council President Donald Tusk gave a cautious welcome to May's change of course.
“Even if, after today, we don't know what the end result will be, let us be patient,” he tweeted — a suggestion the EU would wait for Britain to present a clear plan.
The European Parliament's Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt, tweeted that May's move toward compromise was “better late than never.”
Labour's business spokeswoman, Rebecca Long-Bailey, said May's offer was long overdue, but that the opposition would enter talks with an open mind.
“We're not setting any red lines for these discussions with the prime minister,” she said.
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