U.K. Parliament rejects May’s Brexit plans despite last-ditch efforts to save deal

by - 5 min read

U.K. Parliament rejects May’s Brexit plans despite last-ditch efforts to save deal

by - 5 min read


Britain’s Parliament has dealt a major blow to Prime Minister Theresa May, resoundingly rejecting her Brexit deal just 17 days before the U.K. is due to leave the bloc.

Lawmakers voted 391 to 242 against the deal, the second time they have defeated it.

The House of Commons threw out the agreement by an overwhelming majority in January, sending May back to the EU to seek changes.

Scrambling to plot an orderly path out of the Brexit maze just days before the United Kingdom is due to leave, May rushed to Strasbourg on Monday to secure “legally binding” assurances from European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker — but it wasn’t enough. 

May, her voice hoarse, told Parliament on Tuesday hours ahead of a scheduled vote that “if this deal is not passed then Brexit could be lost.” 

The government’s top lawyer, Geoffrey Cox, weighed in early Tuesday, saying the revised divorce deal with the EU had not given Britain legal means of exiting the so-called backstop arrangement unilaterally if “intractable differences” arose.

“The legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have … no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement,” said Cox, the attorney general.

Labour Party’s shadow secretary for Brexit, Keir Starmer, left, assailed the Conservatives after the attorney general’s advice was published. Starmer is shown with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Feb. 21. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Cox’s advice was thought to be crucial to winning over euroskeptic lawmakers in May’s Conservative Party, and she had hoped that revisions to a Brexit deal over the Irish backstop, or protocol, would offer enough assurances to get her deal through Parliament.

The Labour Party immediately seized on Cox’s opinion in a statement.

“The attorney general has confirmed that there have been no significant changes to the withdrawal agreement despite the legal documents that were agreed last night,” said Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister. “The government’s strategy is now in tatters.”

Damian Collins was among the Conservative MPs who said they still couldn’t vote for May’s deal after Cox gave his legal opinion.

Cox, meanwhile, reacted dismissively with the one-word tweet “bollocks” to the suggestion by a journalist that he was pressured by the government to validate May’s Brexit deal assurances against his will.

Now or never, says EU’s Juncker

British lawmakers were told the joint instrument agreed on by May and Juncker “reduces the risk” the United Kingdom would be trapped in the backstop.

Brexiteers worried the backstop, aimed at avoiding controls on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, could trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit indefinitely.

Many of the same lawmakers have accused her of botching the negotiations with Brussels and surrendering on the detail of the backstop.

The United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29.

After 2½ years of haggling since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Juncker cautioned this is the last chance for Britain.

“It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said.

British lawmakers, who on Jan. 15 voted 432-202 against May’s deal, were studying the assurances with lawyers.

May promised that if lawmakers voted down her plan, she would hold a vote on Wednesday on whether to leave without a deal and, if they reject that, there would be a vote on whether to ask for a limited delay to Brexit.

“I sincerely hope the House won’t put itself in this invidious position,” May said of those prospects, citing the “significant economic shock” for businesses and families of a no-deal Brexit, and reduced security co-operation with the EU.

Asked what would happen if she lost by more than 100 votes this time, euroskeptic Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg told Sky News: “I think that if [the loss] is by less than 230 votes, she will be able to say ‘we’ve made some progress’ and I wouldn’t worry about the prime minister’s position.”

He added: “There isn’t a mechanism for an early election which is likely to be successful.”

Britain’s crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an array of possible outcomes, including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the Conservative government in a supply-and-confidence arrangement, said in a statement May had not achieved sufficient progress in Brexit negotiations “at this time” but that it was still possible to reach a deal with further talks.

“We recognize that the prime minister has made limited progress in her discussions with the European Union. However in our view, sufficient progress has not been achieved at this time,” a DUP spokesperson said in a statement ahead of a parliamentary vote on the deal.

“Having carefully considered the published material … It is clear that the risks remain that the U.K. would be unable to lawfully exit the backstop were it to be activated. It is possible to reach a sensible deal which works for the United Kingdom and the European Union, but it will require all sides to be reasonable and in deal-making mode.”

Irish PM supports changes

Brexit would pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown and many fear it would divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

May announced three documents — a joint instrument, a joint statement and a unilateral declaration — which she said were aimed at addressing the Irish backstop, the most contentious part of the divorce deal she agreed on with the EU in November.

The immediate reaction was caution from Brexit-supporting lawmakers.

A pro-Brexit supporter takes part in a protest in London on Tuesday. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

On Tuesday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar expressed support for the proposed changes, saying Ireland does not want to undermine the backstop.

“It does not reopen the withdrawal agreement or undermine the backstop or its application. It says we will work together in good faith in pursuit of a future relationship that ensures the objectives of the protocol, particularly the need to avoid a hard border, are met,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday.

Varadkar said a positive vote Tuesday could “restore confidence and optimism in Britain, Ireland and across the European Union.” 

This story originally appeared on CBC