LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal came under fire from allies and opponents alike yesterday after the government was forced to publish legal advice showing that the United Kingdom could be locked indefinitely in the European Union's orbit.
After a string of humiliating parliamentary defeats for Mrs May the day before cast new doubt over her ability to get a deal approved, US investment bank JP Morgan said the chances of Britain calling off Brexit altogether had increased.
As investors and allies tried to work out the ultimate destination for the world's fifth-largest economy, the Northern Irish party that props up Mrs May's government said legal advice about the deal was "devastating".
Mrs May was forced by Parliament to publish advice from the government's top lawyer about the fallback mechanism, or backstop, to prevent the return of border controls between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the EU-member Irish Republic.
"Despite statements in the Protocol that it is not intended to be permanent and the clear intention of the parties that it should be replaced by alternative, permanent arrangements, in international law, the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place," the advice said. The Protocol refers to the backstop in the agreement.
"In the absence of a right of termination, there is a legal risk that the United Kingdom might become subject to protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations."
Brexit, the UK's biggest economic and political shift since World War II, has plunged British politics into crisis since the shock 2016 vote to leave the EU.
Mrs May is trying to get her deal approved by a Parliament that shows every sign of striking it down in a vote next Tuesday. It is unclear what will happen if the deal is rejected, as Britain is due to leave on March 29.
On Tuesday, just hours before the start of a five-day debate in the British Parliament on Mrs May's Brexit deal, a top law official at the European Court of Justice said Britain could pull back its formal divorce notice.
JP Morgan economist Malcolm Barr wrote in a note to clients: "The UK now appears to have the option of revoking unilaterally and taking a period of time of its own choosing to decide what happens next."
He placed a 10 per cent probability on a no-deal Brexit, down from 20 per cent, and a 50 per cent probability on an orderly Brexit, down from 60 per cent. The chance of no Brexit at all doubled to 40 per cent from 20 per cent, in a sign of perhaps the biggest shift in perception since the 2016 vote to leave.
Britain's pro-Brexit Trade Minister Liam Fox said it was now possible Brexit would not happen. There was a real danger that Parliament would try to "steal" Brexit from the British people, Mr Fox told a parliamentary committee yesterday.
If Parliament rejects her deal, Mrs May has warned that Britain could leave without a deal or that there could be no Brexit at all.
Mrs May lost three key votes on a day of drama in the House of Commons on Tuesday, highlighting the weakness of her position as she tries to ratify the deal she struck with the EU.
The result is that Parliament now has the potential to decide on Britain's "Plan B" if - as expected - it rejects Mrs May's divorce agreement with the EU in the biggest vote of all next week.
"No longer must the will of Parliament - reflecting the will of the people - be diminished," Tory lawmaker Dominic Grieve said after engineering one of Mrs May's defeats on Tuesday. "Parliament must now take back control and then give the final decision back to the public because, in the end, only the people can sort this out."
But according to Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom, the crucial vote did not rule out a no-deal Brexit.
"It basically says Parliament, where we know there is no majority for one outcome or another, will have more say over this," she told BBC Radio yesterday.