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With low expectations, UK Conservatives and Labour resume Brexit talks
[LONDON] Britain's Conservative government and the opposition Labour Party resume Brexit talks on Tuesday to try to find a way to break the deadlock in parliament over the country's departure from the European Union.
After Prime Minister Theresa May's deal was rejected three times and she was forced to delay Brexit, the government has spent more than four weeks in talks with Labour - negotiations that have done little to soften positions in either party.
So far, there has been no agreement between Britain's main parties and few held out any hope of a breakthrough on Tuesday. But with the clock ticking down before European elections, when both parties could face more bruising results after local polls last week, time is running out.
Almost three years since Britain voted to leave the EU, there is little clarity about how, when or even if Brexit will happen.
David Lidington, Mrs May's de facto deputy, conceded that Britain would have to take part in the elections to the European Parliament on May 23, but said there was still time to avoid those elected having to take their seats.
"Ideally we would like to be in a situation where those MEPs from the UK never actually take their seats in the European Parliament, certainly to get this done and dusted by the summer recess," he said, referring to parliament's summer break which usually begins in the second half of July.
Addressing her Cabinet team of ministers, Mrs May bolstered her argument for talks with Labour by saying last week's local elections, when the Conservatives lost hundreds of council seats, underlined the need to get on with Brexit.
"The prime minister said that while an agreement with the opposition had not been reached, the public had sent a clear message in the local elections that they want both of the main parties to get on with delivering Brexit," her spokesman said she told ministers.
Some pro-EU lawmakers say the local elections showed the tide was turning against Brexit after the Liberal Democrats, which supports a second referendum, gained many council seats.
On both sides of the talks, there was little suggestion that this would offer a breakthrough, rather that they wanted to see whether there was a sense that any agreement could be found and on what kind of timetable.
Neither party had wanted to contest the elections to the European Parliament on May 23, when they fear voters will again punish them by voting for alternative parties after showing their frustration at local elections last week.
Conservative Brexit supporters might flock to the newly launched Brexit Party of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, while Labour pro-EU campaigners might look to Change UK, another new party, or support the Liberal Democrats.
But with both parties, like much of the country, deeply divided over Brexit, any breakthrough might be hard to come by.
Labour sources were dismissive over weekend reports the government would offer new concessions, including temporary customs union with the EU until a national election due in June 2022, saying such a proposal would not go far enough.
John McDonnell, Corbyn ally and Labour's finance policy chief, also accused the government of undermining the confidentiality of the talks by briefing the proposal - something that was denied by Mrs May's spokesman.
That offer was quickly played down by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said he did not believe a post-Brexit customs union would offer "a sustainable long-term solution".
"I want to look at whatever deal is come to between the parties and I know this is a crucial week," he told BBC radio.