Theresa May faces decision day on whether to delay ill-fated Brexit vote

If Prime Minister Theresa May loses the vote, Britain will be on course for a disorderly exit in March 2019.
If Prime Minister Theresa May loses the vote, Britain will be on course for a disorderly exit in March 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British Prime Minister Theresa May must decide on Monday (Dec 10) whether to put her Brexit deal to a vote in Parliament this week and risk a humiliating defeat that could plunge the country into unprecedented political chaos.

The alternative is to postpone it, and head to an EU summit on Thursday in the hope of extracting concessions from leaders who have already made clear they have nothing to give her.

If she loses the vote, Britain will be on course for a disorderly exit in March. But it could also trigger a general election, a leadership challenge or even a second referendum.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the BBC that there are no plans to delay the vote. He was responding to a report by the Sunday Times that some aides and ministers expect Mrs May to announce a delay in order to convince EU leaders in Brussels to relax the terms of the agreement.

Lawmakers from across Parliament used television interviews on Sunday to call on Mrs May to do just that. The Prime Minister pushed back in an interview with the Mail on Sunday, saying her party members risk helping the opposition Labour Party's push for power if they defeat her accord.

The wave of resignations continued over the weekend when Mr Will Quince resigned as parliamentary private secretary to the defence minister. In the Telegraph newspaper, he said that he cannot support Mrs May's EU agreement because of the risk that, under the so-called backstop arrangement, Britain will be negotiating with Brussels indefinitely.

The newspaper reported that a Cabinet minister is also considering quitting, while Brexit Minister Kwasi Kwarteng told BBC Radio 5 Live that "one or two" more lawmakers might leave, although he played down suggestions the party could split on the issue.

 
 
 
 

Among those demanding a new agreement was former foreign secretary and high-profile Brexit advocate Boris Johnson. The current deal gives power to other member states to "blackmail" Britain, he said in a BBC interview. He suggested Mrs May threaten to withhold at least half of its divorce payment to the bloc in order to secure an alternative solution to the Irish border.

"What the EU is trying to do is give us an absolutely unacceptable choice. We've got to reject that," he said. "Neither side wants to go out without a deal.

EU leaders, meeting in Brussels from Thursday, might not fully agree. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian reiterated the bloc's line that the agreement currently on offer is not up for further negotiation.

"The British have decided to leave. It's too bad, it's regrettable, but it's a fact," he said on French radio station RTL. The current deal "is the most that we could offer. The talks are closed. Now it's up to the British to decide".

If Mrs May does lose the vote, what would come next? An idea that is gaining momentum among both Eurosceptics and pro-Europeans is for Britain to become a member of the European Economic Area, adopting a relationship with the EU modelled on that of Norway.

That would be positive for business, particularly exporters and the financial community, which would probably be able to maintain current levels of access to the rest of Europe. Pro-EU Conservatives like this Norway model, as does a significant part of the Labour Party. Smaller parties could also back it.

There is even a chance that Mrs May's Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party would too. Mr Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the small group of 10 lawmakers propping up her Tory government, told Sky News on Sunday that if the current proposal passes the House, she can no longer count on their support.

Unlike Norway, however, Britain would need a customs union with the EU to avoid a hard border with Ireland. The glitch is that it would mean the free movement of people would continue, which many, including Mrs May, consider a betrayal of the referendum result.

Another option is to call a second referendum. Although Mrs May has so far ruled out taking the question back to the people of Britain, some of her more loyal ministers are already planning for just such a scenario, the Sunday Times said.

Government officials are discussing two versions of a potential new public vote, it said. The first would feature a straight choice between Mrs May's deal and staying in the bloc. The second would ask voters to choose between leaving the EU and remaining, but with a supplementary question if the Leave camp wins: Would they prefer the existing deal or a Brexit on World Trade Organisation terms?

The European Court of Justice will later on Monday formally rule on whether or not Britain can unilaterally call off the divorce by revoking Article 50.