PM May gains two weeks' Brexit reprieve from lawmakers

Premier averts rebellion over no-deal Brexit as Labour voices support for new public vote

LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May has won a two-week reprieve from British lawmakers, who postponed a threatened rebellion aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit after she agreed to a possible delay to Britain's departure from the European Union.

But the opposition Labour Party announced it would now support a new public vote on Brexit, the first time since Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU that one of its main parties has backed giving voters a chance to change their minds.

After months of saying that Britain must leave the EU on time on March 29, Mrs May on Tuesday opened up the possibility of a short limited extension to the exit date.

That was enough to avert a showdown in Parliament on Wednesday with lawmakers - including ministers in her own government who had said they were prepared to join a rebellion this week to avert an exit with no agreement.

Mrs May's climbdown took much of the heat out of a series of votes on Wednesday that could have ripped control of the entire Brexit process away from the government.

In the end, lawmakers backed her promised timetable. But it now means British citizens and businesses will not learn how, or possibly even whether, they are to leave the EU until the final weeks or even days before the deadline.

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said yesterday the March 29 Brexit date can be extended, but it must be for a good reason.

A "technical" extension, he said, could last until the eve of the European parliamentary election in May.

A longer extension would raise the issue of Britons voting in the European election, he added.

"If it is asked, European leaders will say 'What for?' and the duration of this potential extension will be linked to 'What for?'," Mr Barnier told reporters after meeting Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

French President Emmanuel Macron had said on Wednesday that the EU would agree to extend the Brexit deadline beyond March 29 only if Britain justified such a request with a clear objective.

Mrs May had negotiated a Brexit deal with European leaders, but it was rejected on Jan 15 in the biggest parliamentary defeat in modern British history.

She is hoping to bring back a tweaked divorce accord for a vote, which could come as early as next week but may not take place until March 12.

Mrs May has now promised that if her latest deal is voted down, lawmakers will get a chance to vote on whether to leave with no deal or to ask the E U to delay the deadline.

Lawmakers voted 502-20 in support of an amendment proposed by Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper that spelt out Mrs May's proposed timetable. The government backed the amendment.

Before Mrs May's concessions on Tuesday, Ms Cooper had been assembling support from all parties for an amendment that would have ensured Parliament had a chance to block a no-deal exit and seek a delay.

Wednesday's votes also saw lawmakers defeat a Labour proposal for a permanent Customs union with the EU.

While that was widely expected, Labour had said this week that its failure would be the trigger for the main opposition party to pledge its support for a new referendum.

"Disappointed the government has rejected Labour's alternative Brexit deal," said Labour's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer.

"That's why Labour will put forward or support an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit."

Lawmakers also rejected a proposal on Wednesday by the Scottish National Party calling for a no-deal Brexit to be ruled out under any circumstances.

The big shifts on Brexit by both Mrs May and Labour this week reflect turmoil within both major political parties as the Brexit deadline approaches.

Eight Labour lawmakers and three Conservatives quit their parties last week to set up a new anti-Brexit group, the biggest such schism in British politics for decades.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2019, with the headline 'PM May gains two weeks' Brexit reprieve from lawmakers'. Print Edition | Subscribe