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May struggles to save Brexit deal ahead of crucial vote today

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 11, 2019 Published on March 11, 2019

British PM Theresa May Leon Neal

 

Tuesday is set to bring another crunch moment for British politics as another crucial vote on Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal is set to take place in the House of Commons, which could set the path for not only the future of Brexit but the Prime Minister herself.

Despite a flurry of conversations between London and Brussels — including a conversation on Sunday between May and Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, the Prime Minister has been unable to garner the changes that some members of her party and their allies in the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland are seeking, and therefore faces defeat in the vote on Tuesday. The Prime Minister had said that should she be voted down then two votes would follow on Wednesday and Thursday — potentially taking a no-deal Brexit off the table, and — if MPs vote against a no-deal Brexit— enabling a short delay to Brexit. Britain is set to leave the EU on March 29 but unless a deal is ratified before that date, Britain is set to crash out without a deal.

The vote could also prove decisive for the Prime Minister herself. Ahead of the Conservative Party’s vote of confidence in her last year, which she narrowly won, May had pledged to step down as Prime Minister before the next elections. However, given the political stalemate, pressure on her to shift that date forward has increased, with some pushing for it to take place by June. That pressure increased over the weekend as some MPs have suggested she could be forced to step down if she lost the vote on Tuesday.

On Monday, the government admitted talks were “deadlocked,” but has insisted that the vote is set to go ahead, despite pressure from some quarters, for the Tuesday vote to be downsized to an indicative vote to give yet more time for negotiations. Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney told a press conference in Dublin that May was due to meet European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker on Monday evening in Strasbourg to attempt to reach a last minute deal.

The suggestion that the commitment to hold a vote could be watered down provoked an outcry among MPs, with Conservative MP Nick Boles warning that if she did so she would “forfeit the confidence of the House of Commons.”

Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission’s Chief Spokesperson, insisted that the EU remained committed to ratifying the deal before March 29. It was for the House of Commons to take an important set of decisions, he said.

The Northern Irish backstop remains the key issue: the effective insurance policy would put the UK in a temporary customs union with the EU in the event of future talks breaking down in order to avoid a hard border developing on the island of Ireland. Geoffrey Cox, Britain’s Attorney General, has so far been unable to change his legal advice that the backstop could “endure indefinitely,” – with no proposals in sight that are likely to alter this. A suggestion from the EU —that they could alter the backstop to allow Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) to exit the customs union unilaterally so long as Northern Ireland remained within it — was shot down by the British government last week.

Some Conservative MPs and Cabinet members have sought to rally support behind the Prime Minister, insisting that should the vote be lost, the Brexit process itself could be under threat. “There is a wind in the sales of people trying to stop Brexit,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC over the weekend.

While some Conservative MPs such as Boles are pushing for an extension to Article 50, others, including members of the right-wing European Research Group, are pressing for a no-deal Brexit rather than any delays if May’s deal is voted down. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph Nigel Dodds, a DUP MP, and Steve Baker, a Conservative MP, warned that while it was “inevitable” that Mays’ deal would be voted down, any delay would be a “political calamity.”

The Labour Party is opposing the withdrawal agreement, but is yet to fully back a second referendum, insisting that a short delay would be needed. It continues to push for a general election, with the party’s shadow Chancellor John McDonnell insisting to the BBC that a Labour deal — that would involve remain in a customs union and close alignment to the single market — could be agreed within “weeks.” The Liberal Democrats and the independent group of former Conservative and Labour MPs continue to push for a second referendum to break the gridlock. “The established parties are deeply divided and failing to provide the leadership the country needs,” said one of its members, Chuka Umunna, a former Labour MP.

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Published on March 11, 2019
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