British PM Theresa May faces another likely defeat in vote on revised Brexit deal, as clock ticks down
British Prime Minister Theresa May was facing yet another battle for her own political survival on Tuesday as Parliament looked set to again reject her Brexit deal with the European Union — just weeks before Britain is set to leave the bloc.
“There is only one certainty if we don’t pass this vote tonight and that is that uncertainty will continue for our citizens and for our businesses,” a hoarse May warned MPs in the House of Commons.
Parliament will vote Tuesday evening on the Withdrawal Agreement that May hashed out with E.U. leaders last year — a deal intended to ensure a smooth withdrawal from the European Union when Britain is scheduled to leave at the end of March.
But in January, the agreement was overwhelmingly defeated in the largest defeat in House of Commons history, opposed by those in favor of remaining in the E.U. and those seeking to leave it.
Much of the opposition on the right comes from concern over the “backstop” — a safety net by which the U.K. temporarily remains in a customs union until a trade deal in secured, so as to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“Brexiteers” have pointed to the lack of a unilateral exit mechanism in the backstop as evidence that it could lead to Britain never leaving the bloc, or being forced to accept unfavorable trading terms. After the agreement was shot down in January, May pledged to go to Strasbourg and return with alterations more favorable to Parliament.
May returned late Monday from a last-gasp meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and announced that she had in fact secured “legally binding” changes to the agreement to prevent a permanent backstop. But May was dealt a blow on Tuesday when Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told the House of Commons that while the new clauses “enhance” the agreement, it does not change the fundamental risk.
The legal risk…remains unchanged,” he told the House. “The question for the House is whether, in light of these improvements, as a political judgement, the House should now enter into those arrangements.”
May urged MPs to vote for the deal, urging pro-Remain MPs to respect the 2016 referendum result, while telling pro-Brexit MPs that no Brexit at all was a real risk if they were to vote down her deal.
“Members across the aisles should ask themselves if they want to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” she said.
Labour Party MPs slammed May for her handling of Brexit and for her deal, accusing her of promoting a “blindfold Brexit.”
“For many honorable members the biggest concern is that her agreement provides no legal certainty about any of the fundamental questions about our future relationship with the E.U.” MP Liz Kendall told May. “As a result we will be back here time and time again and, far from providing certainty for the future, her blindfold Brexit is the most uncertain future for our country of all.”
Two groups, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs, both indicated they would oppose the deal even with the new changes.
“The only reason for voting for the deal, which remains a bad deal…is the fear that if the deal is voted down then we might not leave the European Union,” ERG Chair Jacob Rees Mogg told Sky News. “That would be the one thing that would change people’s minds but I don’t think that is the case.”
Should May’s deal be shot down again Tuesday evening, as appears likely, it would leave Britain scheduled to leave the bloc with no deal on March 29, reverting Britain to World Trade Organization (WTO) terms with the E.U. Business groups, members of May’s government and pro-Remain MPs have warned that such a “no deal” Brexit will cause havoc, but pro-Brexit MPs have brushed off that fear as overblown.
If the deal is voted down, Parliament will vote Wednesday on a “no deal” Brexit — a motion likely to be voted down. Should that happen, on Thursday a motion to delay Brexit past March 29 date of departure will be voted on.
If May’s deal is voted down and Brexit is delayed, May would almost certainly face further calls for either her resignation, or to call for a new general election to break the parliamentary stalemate. May has so far fended off a vote of no confidence from her own party in December, and a vote of no confidence in the government in January.
Should the Commons vote to delay Brexit, it is unclear if the E.U. will even accept the call to delay Britain’s departure — and could even demand a re-do of the referendum as part of the terms to accept such a delay.
French President Emmanuel Macron said this month that “under no circumstances would we accept an extension without a clear perspective” from the British.
“We don’t need time, we need decisions,” he said.