Downing Street has warned talks with Labour to end the Brexit deadlock will not continue “for the sake of it” after EU leaders granted a second delay to Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc.
Theresa May returned to face her critics after another round of late night diplomacy in Brussels saw the EU set a Halloween deadline of October 31 for the UK finally to reach agreement on the terms of its withdrawal.
In the Commons, the Prime Minister brushed off a call to resign from veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash who described her acceptance of the latest extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process as an “abject surrender”.
However senior Tories warned the pressure on her to go would “increase dramatically” amid frustration among MPs that there is still no certainty as to when Britain will leave.
Mrs May told MPs that under the terms of the extension it was still possible Britain could avoid voting in European elections on May 23 if Parliament was able to pass a deal before that date.
However she acknowledged that reaching agreement in talks with Labour “will not be easy” as it would require compromise on both sides, but said that it was in the “national interest” that they should try.
“This is not the normal way of British politics – and it is uncomfortable for many in both the Government and opposition parties,” she said.
“But however challenging it may be politically, I profoundly believe that in this unique situation where the House is deadlocked, it is incumbent on both front benches to seek to work together to deliver what the British people voted for.
Jeremy Corbyn said Labour would continue to engage “constructively” in the negotiations which he described as “serious, detailed and ongoing”, but warned ministers would have to compromise if they were to succeed.
He hit out at what he said was an apparent attempt by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox to “scupper” the talks by trying to rule out a customs union – a key Labour demand.
Mrs May however suggested the two sides were not as far apart on the issue as was sometimes claimed.
“I think there is actually more agreement in relation to a customs union than is often given credit for when different language is used,” she said.
A No 10 source said they would continue to pursue the dialogue as long as they believed it was making progress, but added: “Bluntly, we won’t continue to talk for the sake of it.”
Mrs May said that if they could not agree a single unified approach, they would seek to agree a “small number” of options which they would put to the House for MPs to vote on.
“As I have made clear before, the Government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House. But to make this process work, the opposition would need to agree to this too,” she said.
Following her Commons statement, Mrs May and Mr Corbyn held a “short meeting” at Westminster when they agreed to continue the talks process, Labour said.
In the Commons, some Tory Brexiteers voiced their anger that the country was facing an extended delay, something Mrs May had said previously she would not countenance, having already missed the original March 29 leaving date.
Sir Bill said: “Does the Prime Minister appreciate the anger that her abject surrender last night has generated across the country, having broken promises 100 times not to extend the time?”
Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the pro Brexit European Research Group, accused the Prime Minister of “sheer obstinacy” and warned Mr Corbyn could “string you along” in the talks only to collapse them.
The Labour leader said the second Brexit extension in the space of a fortnight represents “not only a diplomatic failure, but is another milestone in the Government’s mishandling of the entire Brexit process”.
Earlier former Brexit secretary David Davis said Mrs May had failed to make any progress in Brussels and warned demands for her to quit would intensify.
“The pressure on her to go will increase dramatically, I suspect,” he said.
The six-month extension to October 31 was a compromise thrashed out by EU leaders after French President Emmanuel Macron dug in against a longer delay lasting into 2020.
Under the terms of the agreement, the UK can leave at any time if the Withdrawal Agreement reached last November is ratified by the Westminster Parliament.
European Council president Donald Tusk did not rule out further extensions, but said the October extension should be enough to find the “best possible solution”.
He added: “Please do not waste this time.”