PM May mulling over Brexit 'Plan B' as House takes control

Anti-Brexit protesters waving the EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London yesterday. If the UK tumbles out of the bloc on March 29 without any new trading partnership in place, official analysis suggests the impact could trigger a recessio
Anti-Brexit protesters waving the EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London yesterday. If the UK tumbles out of the bloc on March 29 without any new trading partnership in place, official analysis suggests the impact could trigger a recession.PHOTO: REUTERS

Move comes as she loses ground in battle over who controls direction of exit from EU

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May is openly contemplating a Brexit "Plan B" amid growing signs that Parliament will reject the deal she has reached with the European Union and try to take charge of what happens next.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister suffered her second defeat in two days in the House of Commons, losing control of the timetable for setting out the next steps if - as expected - Parliament votes down her Brexit deal next Tuesday.

In the aftermath of Wednesday's defeat, Mrs May's office publicly discussed for the first time what she would do if she loses that critically important vote next Tuesday.

"Our intention has always been to respond quickly and provide certainty on the way forward in the event we lose," her spokesman, Mr James Slack, told reporters in London. "That is what we will do."

Mr Slack's remark is a significant development and a clear sign that Mrs May's team knows she is losing ground in her battle with Parliament over who controls the direction of Brexit. It followed a defeat on Tuesday when the Commons voted to undermine her preparations for a no-deal exit from the bloc.

It all points to a scenario in which the Prime Minister, who leads a weak minority government, cannot dictate what happens next, while an emboldened Parliament increasingly asserts its will.

Some in Mrs May's Cabinet welcome that. Business Secretary Greg Clark yesterday became the latest senior government figure to signal that a no-deal Brexit was unacceptable. He told the BBC that the world's investors were watching the United Kingdom with "mounting alarm", and urged Parliament to be an "active participant" in finding a Brexit compromise.

 
 
 

In recent days, Mrs May has been trying to garner support for her deal. This week, she met a group of opposition Labour Party lawmakers in an attempt to win their support on Brexit, according to an official familiar with the matter. That is in addition to a larger group of cross-party lawmakers she met to discuss their concerns about a no-deal Brexit, as well as smaller groups of Conservatives, the official said.

However, the number of Labour members willing to risk their party's fury in order to support Mrs May's deal as it stands is not close to the number of Conservatives publicly committed to voting against it. Only a significant shift by the Prime Minister, for instance accepting a customs union with the EU, would have any chance of doing that.

That would outrage Brexit-supporting Conservatives, but there are signs that the rest of the party is losing patience with them.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday evening, Tory Paul Masterton said that, having accepted that his side lost in the Brexit referendum, he had been willing to compromise.

"The deal before us is as far as I am prepared to go," he said. "If some of my colleagues want to blow this up in pursuit of an ideologically purist fantasy, fine. Go ahead. But I am done. Would it not be something if, when the history books are written, it emerged that it was owing to the arrogance and belligerence of the hardline Brexiters in refusing to compromise that, rather than ending up with this imperfect Brexit, they ended up with no Brexit at all?"

With fewer than 80 days until Britain is due to leave the EU, time is running out to secure an agreement and avoid what businesses and pro-European politicians fear will be a costly no-deal exit.

If the UK tumbles out of the bloc on March 29 without any new trading partnership in place, official analysis suggests the impact could trigger a recession, with the pound falling by as much as 25 per cent and house prices by as much 30 per cent.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2019, with the headline 'PM May mulling over Brexit 'Plan B' as House takes control'. Print Edition | Subscribe