High stakes for PM May as lawmakers vote on Brexit plan

Pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday ahead of a parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal struck between British Prime Minister Theresa May's government and the EU. A comparatively narrow defeat could allow
Pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday ahead of a parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal struck between British Prime Minister Theresa May's government and the EU. A comparatively narrow defeat could allow her to try again, but a loss by 100 votes or more would most likely be seen as dooming the plan for good.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

British leader's hopes of keeping unpopular deal alive hinge on scale of her expected loss

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal is set for a make-or-break vote in Parliament early today, with defeat all but certain. The scale of the defeat, though, will determine her next steps and options for ending the impasse.

Barely 21/2 months before Britain is due to leave the European Union, the potential outcomes include resurrecting her deal, leaving the EU with no deal at all, or holding another referendum that could halt Brexit altogether.

Mrs May's hopes of keeping her widely unpopular plan alive will hinge on the scale of her expected loss. A comparatively narrow defeat could allow her to try again, but a loss by 100 votes or more would most likely be seen as dooming the plan for good.

The vote was set to take place around 4am Singapore time today, with the announcement of the result possible about 15 minutes later.

As Britain's deepest political crisis for at least half a century came to a head, a spokesman for Mrs May said she would respond quickly to the result of the vote.

He also said there had been no discussion at a meeting between Mrs May and her Cabinet yesterday morning about delaying Brexit beyond the March 29 deadline.

Mrs May says accepting her deal is the only way Parliament can fulfil its promise to deliver on the 2016 vote to quit the EU, and failing to do so would be "catastrophic" for democracy. Her ministers pressed that message on the morning of the vote.

"The British people have placed a responsibility on us," Environment Secretary Michael Gove told BBC radio. "Are we going to live up to that responsibility and vote to leave the European Union, or are we going to disappoint them and damage our democracy by not voting to leave the EU?"

Many Brexit-supporting lawmakers from Mrs May's Conservative Party reject the deal, particularly a "backstop" requirement that Northern Ireland stay closely aligned to EU rules to avoid the return of a hard border with EU member Ireland.

Mr Dominic Raab, who resigned as Mrs May's Brexit minister last November in protest against her plans, said the government should not lose its nerve over the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, something many employers fear would mean chaos for business.

 
 
 
 

"It's time for us, through this vote, to make clear not just that the current terms are unacceptable, but also that we are not just throwing our hands up in the air," he said. "We are going to leave on March 29."

Investors sense the possibility of a no-deal Brexit is receding, given the concerns of lawmakers about the upheaval it could bring. The sterling hit a two-month high against the United States dollar on Monday and held near that level yesterday.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the EU could hold new talks with Britain after a defeat in Parliament of the plan Mrs May struck with other leaders of the bloc last November, but he ruled out significant changes to the agreement.

Mrs May has refused to budge over her deal. The agreement, which envisages close economic ties with the EU, has united the opposing sides of the debate - pro-EU lawmakers who see it as the worst of all worlds and Brexit supporters who say it will make Britain a vassal state.

Mrs May has warned pro-Brexit lawmakers that if her plan is rejected, no Brexit at all would be more likely than Britain leaving the EU without a deal. She has also warned her party against allowing the left-wing opposition Labour Party to seize the initiative.

Labour is formally committed to Brexit but opposes her deal. Polls of party activists show that most want the party to back a new referendum. It has not done so, but has not ruled it out if Mrs May's deal is voted down and she refuses to resign.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, hoping to force a national election, is expected to call for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Mrs May if she loses today's vote.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2019, with the headline 'High stakes for PM May as lawmakers vote on Brexit plan'. Print Edition | Subscribe