UK PM May holds Brexit talks; opposition dubs them a ‘stunt’

LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May was consulting opposition parties and other lawmakers Thursday in a battle to get Brexit back on track after surviving a no-confidence vote, talks that were branded a “stunt” by the main opposition leader.

Across the Channel, European Union countries were stepping up preparations for a disorderly British exit on March 29 after the U.K. Parliament rejected May’s Brexit withdrawal deal. EU nations were spending millions, hiring thousands of workers and issuing emergency decrees to cope with the possibility that Britain will leave the bloc without an agreement to smooth the way.

British lawmakers threw out May’s Brexit deal Tuesday, handing the prime minister the worst parliamentary defeat in modern British history. The drubbing was followed by a no-confidence vote demanded by the opposition. May’s minority Conservative government survived it on Wednesday night with backing from its Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party.

A chastened May promised she would hold talks “in a constructive spirit” with leaders of opposition parties and other lawmakers in a bid to find a way forward for Britain’s EU exit.

The government confirmed that May will meet a Monday deadline to publish a Brexit Plan B, and that lawmakers will have a full day to debate it — and, crucially, amend it — on Jan. 29.

May met Thursday with representatives from several of Parliament’s feuding Brexit factions: Northern Ireland’s compromise-rejecting Democratic Unionists, Euroskeptic “hard Brexit”-backing Conservatives, those urging Britain to hold a second EU membership referendum and supporters of a close economic relationship with the EU.

May claimed to be listening, but with such a wide range of views on Britain’s future, she can’t please all of them.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said he wouldn’t meet with May until she took a no-deal Brexit “off the table.”

“To get a deal that can command a majority in Parliament, Theresa May has to ditch the red lines and get serious about proposals for the future,” Corbyn said during a speech to supporters in the English seaside town of Hastings. “Last night’s offer of talks with party leaders turned out to be simply a stunt, not the serious attempt to engage with the new reality that’s needed.”

Green Party lawmaker Caroline Lucas, who met with May on Thursday morning, said the prime minister was “in a fantasy world” if she thought her Brexit deal could be transformed by Monday.

“Parliament is gridlocked,” she said.

May so far has showed little inclination to make major changes to her Brexit deal or lift her insistence that Brexit means leaving the EU’s single market and customs union. Many lawmakers think a softer departure that kept Britain in the EU’s single market or customs union is the only plan capable of winning a majority in Parliament. They fear the alternative is an abrupt “no-deal” withdrawal from the bloc, which businesses and economists say would cause wide turmoil.

As Britain flounders, the 27 other EU countries have stood firm, saying they won’t renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and insisting that the British government and its lawmakers need to decide what they want to do.

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, EU leaders have warned Britain against trying to “cherry pick” the benefits of EU membership, such as seeking to retain access to the EU’s single market while ending the free movement of European citizens into Britain and breaching other EU principles.

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who said Wednesday that he was more concerned than ever that Britain could crash out of the EU without an agreement, said the red lines set out by Britain’s negotiators had “shut doors.”

Barnier said Thursday that “getting an agreement is in everybody’s interest” and that “something has to change” to secure a divorce deal.

“If (the red lines) change, we’ll change,” Barnier said after meeting with Portuguese officials in Lisbon.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe held a special government meeting Thursday on planning to cope with a “no-deal” Brexit. France is spending 50 million euros ($57 million) to beef up security at airports and the Eurotunnel and hiring hundreds of extra customs officers. The French parliament adopted a law Wednesday allowing emergency measures after March 30 in the event that Britain leaves without a deal.

Such measures could aim to reduce problems in cross-border trade and transport, notably through the Eurotunnel beneath the English Channel, and allow British workers and retirees based in France temporary permission to stay until a longer-term deal is worked out.

Britain has already devoted thousands of civil servants and several billion pounds (dollars) to no-deal planning, amid warnings from businesses and economists that the country faces disruption to trade, goods shortages and a deep recession if it crashes out of the bloc without a deal.

The government said Thursday it had issued an order allowing military reservists to be called up for a year of full-time service in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Opposition politicians condemned the move.

“It is staggering that soldiers are being put on standby because of the risk of a constitutional crisis of the government’s own making,” said Ian Murray of the Labour lawmaker.

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