Theresa May has tried to blame Jeremy Corbyn for the continuing deadlock over Brexit, suggesting that Labour is happier than the Tories to contest the coming Euro elections.
As cross-party talks between government and the opposition restarted on Monday, the prime minister hit out at Corbyn with her clearest warning yet that he was deliberately trying to slow down the negotiations.
And in a sign of fresh tensions on both sides, the Labour leader accused May of “regurgitating” failed plans that had been rejected three times by parliament.
Talks resumed in Whitehall, as Brexit secretary Steve Barclay, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington and May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, held a meeting with Keir Starmer and other Labour figures.
May wants a Brexit deal passed by parliament as soon as possible, to prevent any need for the UK taking part in European Parliament elections on May 22.
But with the Tories trailing Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the polls, and Brussels extending the UK’s membership of the EU until October, several ministers believe Corbyn is hoping to drag out the talks to maximise the damage to the government.
The PM let slip her frustration in the weekly Cabinet meeting, effectively accusing Corbyn of foot-dragging.
“The prime minister gave an update on the talks on Brexit, which are taking place with the Opposition,” her official spokesman said
“The PM said discussions with Labour had been serious but had also been difficult in some areas, such as in relation to the timetable for the negotiations.
“The PM said the government’s position was that progress needed to be made urgently as it was vital to deliver on the result of the referendum and for the UK to leave the European Union as soon as possible.”
When asked if May was suggesting that Labour did not want the talks to conclude as quickly as the government wanted, the spokesman said that interpretation seemed “reasonable”.
He also stressed: “It is clear that Labour has approached [the talks] in a serious manner and has been engaging constructively, and has been holding very serious and thorough discussions in the negotiation meetings.”
One Cabinet source told HuffPost UK that May was pushed by ministers to bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill soon, to prove she was determined not to fight the Euro elections.
Some around May want her to finally publish the bill as early as next week, but fear without some kind of deal with Labour the legislation will be doomed to be defeat at its second reading.
Labour sources insisted there had to be changes from government on May’s Brexit plans.
“Today felt like a step backwards,” one party insider said. On Labour’s key demand for changes to be included in the ‘political declaration’ on future UK-EU relations, the government appeared to have backtracked.
When the talks were first convened before Easter, ministers refused to countenance the idea, then did discuss it, but in Tuesday’s talks appeared to back off and solely on domestic legislation, sources said.
Corbyn said: “Quite honestly there’s got to be change in the government’s approach. They cannot keep on just regurgitating what has already been emphatically rejected three times by parliament, there’s got to be a change. We have a window of opportunity to bring about that change.”
As the talks broke up on Monday night, Labour said more negotiations were planned this week.
A Tory source said: “It was a productive discussion.” New ‘working groups’ will meet to discuss financial services on Wednesday and the environment on Thursday.