Pro-EU party launches election campaign as UK MPs return from break

by Joe JACKSON
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May will remain prime minister until a new leader is chosen

A new anti-Brexit political party launched its campaign Tuesday for next month's European Parliament elections as British lawmakers returned from their Easter break with rumours of fresh bids to topple Prime Minister Theresa May.

Change UK, formed by breakaway MPs from Britain's two main parties disgruntled at their stances on Brexit, favours remaining in the European Union and wants to hold another referendum.

Meanwhile the government and the main opposition Labour Party resumed talks Tuesday in an attempt to find agreement over Brexit after weeks of negotiations showed little signs of progress.

Britain is mired in a deep political crisis over its departure from the EU, three years after a divisive referendum that voted to pull Britain out of the bloc after nearly half a century.

May was forced to ask EU leaders earlier this month to postpone Brexit for a second time -- from April 12 to October 31 -- after MPs repeatedly rejected the divorce deal she has struck with Brussels.

She is still hoping to persuade Labour to support the plan so the country can leave in time to avoid taking part in the European Parliament elections on May 23.

But with one month to go, few are expecting a consensus to emerge and May's office on Tuesday said talks had been "difficult in some areas, such as in relation to the timetable for the negotiations."

But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn Tuesday said the government can't keep presenting the same approach.

"We'll continue putting our case but quite honestly there's got to be change in the government's approach," said Corbyn.

"They cannot keep on just regurgitating what has already been emphatically rejected three times by Parliament, there's got to be a change."

- 'Impelled to stand' -

In the meantime, Britain's political parties old and new are scrambling to organise for the upcoming polls.

The new party Change UK Tuesday unveiled a roster of candidates at an event in Bristol in southwest England.

The list includes former Polish deputy prime minister Jan Vincent Rostowski and prominent columnist Rachel Johnson -- the sister of former foreign minister and leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson.

Rachel Johnson told London's Evening Standard newspaper she felt "impelled to stand up and be counted for what I believe in".

Interim leader of the pro-EU party, Heidi Allen, who quit the Conservatives in February, said it had received 3,700 candidate applications, many from former Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrat and Green activists.

"This is the home of the Remain alliance," she said, adding the European elections will be a chance to reiterate the need for a second referendum on Brexit.

Anti-EU firebrand Nigel Farage launched his new Brexit Party's campaign earlier this month, with Annunziata Rees-Mogg -- the sister of leading Tory eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg -- one of its candidates.

The former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader, who led that party to first place the last time Britain held European elections in 2014, has seen his new grouping surge in the polls since the launch.

It also announced on Tuesday five more candidates, which include Claire Fox, a left-wing libertarian and regular TV pundit as it targets traditional, Brexit-leaning Labour constituencies.

- 'Fresh leadership' -

May's Conservative Party is watching nervously, with grassroots members and local leaders fearing a wipe-out amid voter discontent over her handling of Brexit.

Her unpopular withdrawal deal reached with the EU rejected by parliament is unpopular with party members.

But May could bring it back before MPs again as early as next week in a high-stakes gamble to avoid holding the European elections, according to the Guardian.

MPs are agitating for the prime minister, who has agreed to resign once the first phase of the exit process is finished, to make way for a new leader now.

Nigel Evans, a senior member of the powerful 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, told the BBC on Tuesday he would be "delighted" if she announced her resignation immediately.

"I believe the only way we're going to break this impasse properly is if we have fresh leadership," he said.

May could face another vote of confidence from her own MPs if they agree to change the rules that currently prevent a leader from facing two such votes in a one-year period.

She survived a vote of confidence in December but grassroots discontent could increase pressure on the 1922 Committee to allow another vote at a sooner date, with reports suggesting June.

"Removing Theresa May has become like a trip to the dentist," local party chairman Greig Baker told the BBC.

"It's something that's got to be done and the longer you leave it the worse it will be."

May is still hoping to persuade Labour to support her plan so the country can leave the EU in time to avoid taking part in the European Parliament elections on May 23

Rachel Johnson, candidate for the new pro-EU political party, Change UK, is the sister of former foreign secretary and leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson

Farage launched his new Brexit Party's campaign earlier this month