LONDON • Facing a series of critical votes in Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May raised the stakes by promising to reopen Britain's withdrawal agreement with the European Union, putting her on a direct collision course with the bloc.
Mrs May's move comes at a critical time, as Parliament was set to vote last night on a series of amendments to her Brexit plan, which earlier this month suffered one of the greatest defeats in modern British history.
Before the night is out, Parliament could reverse decades of protocol and practice and assert control over policymaking that has been dominated by the governing party and its prime minister.
The EU meanwhile signalled immediately after Mrs May's address to British lawmakers yesterday that they would not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and hence give Mrs May what she most needs, which is a new way for Britain to guarantee that Brexit will not mean a return of a hard border - with checkpoints, passport controls and customs inspectors - between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said he believed Mrs May's government would have to delay Brexit, due March 29, as time runs out to get a deal with Brussels.
Mrs May had called on Britain's lawmakers to send a message to the EU that they would support her plans to renegotiate "significant" changes to the Brexit divorce deal. She said a divided Parliament would make it harder to leave the EU.
"The odds of success become far longer if this House ties one hand behind my back. So I call on the House to give me the mandate I need to deliver a deal this House can support. Do that and I can work to reopen the withdrawal agreement," she told Parliament yesterday.
Members of Parliament, frustrated by the inability of the Prime Minister to win approval for her withdrawal agreement, were to spend yesterday debating and voting on cross-party amendments designed to steer the government one way or another on Brexit.
Mrs May also faces a sceptical European leadership, grown weary with her delays and the inability of her own Conservative Party, even her own Cabinet, to rally round a single vision for Brexit.
"We will not reopen the withdrawal agreement. So it may be about semantics of what 'reopening' means. If things go towards more declarations, assurances or statements - we can do that. But if she really wants to reopen the whole thing, then it's a 'no'," said a EU diplomat who is involved in the Brexit talks, on condition of anonymity after Mrs May's address.
"'Alternative arrangements' are not only mentioned in the withdrawal agreement but also in the declaration on the future, which we said we can work on."
The British Parliament was to try to shape the future of the country's exit from the EU by debating and voting on what changes they want Mrs May to seek to her Brexit deal.
Perhaps the most critical proposal, the Cooper-Boles amendment, would effectively rule out a "no-deal" Brexit if Mrs May cannot persuade lawmakers to approve her plan by the end of next month.
It proposes a nine-month extension, to Dec 31, but leaves the length of delay open to debate.
Mr Corbyn, Labour Party's leader, said his party would back a three-month delay to Brexit if the government cannot get an exit deal approved by Parliament before Feb 26.
"The Labour Party will back that amendment tonight because to crash out without a deal would be deeply damaging for industry and the economy," said Mr Corbyn.
"Whatever happens in the votes that follow it has now become inevitable that the government will have to extend Article 50 in any scenario."
Analysts believe that the vote will be close: Some lawmakers from the opposition Labour Party are likely to reject the measure, because they fear it might anger Brexit-supporting voters whose support they need, particularly in the English North and Midlands.
NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS