PM May's Brexit gambit fails - again

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May's final Brexit gambit was in tatters yesterday after her offer of a vote on a second referendum and closer trading arrangements failed to win over either opposition lawmakers or those in her own party.

Nearly three years since Britain voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the European Union, Mrs May is trying one last time to get her divorce deal approved by the British Parliament before her crisis-riven premiership ends.

Mrs May again appealed to lawmakers to get behind her, offering the prospect of a possible second referendum on the agreement and closer trading arrangements with the EU as incentives to what she called the only way to prevent a so-called no-deal Brexit.

But the backlash was fierce. Both ruling Conservative and opposition Labour lawmakers criticised Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), legislation which implements the terms of Britain's departure. Some upped efforts to oust her and there were reports that her own ministers could move against her.

The impasse in London means it is unclear how, when or even if Britain will leave the European club it joined in 1973. The current deadline to leave is Oct 31.

Despite the criticism, Mrs May stood firm, urging lawmakers to back the Bill and then have a chance to make changes to it, so they can have more control over the final shape of Brexit.

"In time, another prime minister will be standing at this dispatch box," Mrs May said yesterday, acknowledging that her time as prime minister was drawing to a close.


"But while I am here, I have a duty to be clear with the House (of Commons) about the facts. If we are going to deliver Brexit in this Parliament, we are going to have to pass a Withdrawal Agreement Bill," she told Parliament, where many of her critics left the Chamber, allowing some of her backers to offer support for her argument to pass WAB.

Britain's crisis over Brexit has stunned allies and foes alike.

With a deadlock in London, the world's fifth-largest economy faces an array of options, including an exit with a deal to smooth the transition, a no-deal exit, an election or a second referendum.

The pound was on track for its longest losing streak against the euro as some traders said they saw the rising chance of a no-deal Brexit.

Those fears pushed investors into the relative safety of government bonds - particularly those that offer protection against a spike in inflation.

Despite signs of some support in a near-empty Parliament, her move towards lawmakers who want to stay in the EU incensed many in her party.

"The proposed second reading of the WAB is clearly doomed to fail, so there really is no point wasting any more time on the Prime Minister's forlorn hope of salvation," Mr Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative lawmaker, told Reuters.

"She's got to go."

More Conservative lawmakers handed over letters to the 1922 Committee, a Conservative group that can make or break party leaders, to demand a no-confidence vote in Mrs May, whose strategy to leave the EU has been left in tatters.

Several lawmakers, including Labour's Brexit policy chief Keir Starmer, said there was little point holding next month's vote on her Bill, which most agreed had no chance of passing a deeply divided Parliament.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would not be backing the Bill and described the government as "too weak, too divided to get this country out of the mess that they have created".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2019, with the headline 'PM May's Brexit gambit fails - again'. Print Edition | Subscribe