Theresa May revises Brexit strategy in bid to break deadlock

Campaigners outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday, before Mrs May spoke on changes to her Brexit withdrawal agreement. A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit shows Prime Minister Theresa May makin
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit shows Prime Minister Theresa May making her statement to the House of Commons in London yesterday on changes to her Brexit withdrawal agreement as she sought to ease the concerns of the lawmakers.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Campaigners outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday, before Mrs May spoke on changes to her Brexit withdrawal agreement. A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit shows Prime Minister Theresa May makin
Campaigners outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday, before Mrs May spoke on changes to her Brexit withdrawal agreement.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

She promises to be more flexible, find way to guarantee workers' rights and discuss Irish backstop

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May promised yesterday to be more open with Parliament in negotiating the future relationship with the European Union and to ease the concerns of lawmakers over the divorce deal to win their agreement.

Highlighting three changes to her Brexit approach, Mrs May told Parliament she would be "more flexible", implement a demand from opposition Labour on guaranteeing workers' rights and would find a way to calm nerves over a commitment to no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.

"In doing so, we will honour the mandate of the British people and leave the European Union in a way which benefits every part of our United Kingdom and every citizen of our country," she said.

Mrs May is trying to crack the deadlock over Brexit by setting out proposals in Parliament expected to focus on winning more concessions from the European Union.

With just over two months until the UK is due to leave the European Union on March 29, there is no agreement in London on how and even whether it should leave the world's biggest trading bloc.

After her Brexit divorce deal was rejected by lawmakers last week, Mrs May has been searching for a way to get a deal through Parliament, so far in vain.

She said she could not take a no-deal Brexit off the table as there was not yet an alternative, and the EU would not be likely to extend Article 50 without a plan to secure Parliament's approval.


"So when people say 'Rule out no-deal', the consequences of what they are actually saying are that, if we in Parliament can't approve a deal, we should revoke Article 50. I believe this would go against the referendum result," Mrs May said.

She said another referendum would strengthen the hand of those seeking to break up the UK and could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in democracy.

Mrs May vowed to be "more flexible" with lawmakers in trying to agree changes to the Northern Irish backstop, an insurance policy to ensure there will be no return to border checks between the British province and Ireland.

  • Four scenarios

  • 1. . Delay

    The flurry of amendments could indicate which options MPs want to rule out - but may not produce a majority for anything they do want to proceed with.

    Amendments could seek to halt the two-year Article 50 departure process triggered on March 29, 2017. Brussels may not be so keen if the delay prolongs the political gridlock.

    A further potential complication is that elections to the European Parliament are due in late May and the new Chamber is set to sit on July 2. Some of Britain's 73 seats have been reallocated to other countries.

    2. Try to get another deal

    After the deal agreed between British Prime Minister Theresa May and Brussels was overwhelmingly rejected by MPs last Wednesday, Mrs May immediately began talks with opposition leaders, though main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stayed away, insisting that no-deal must be removed as a pre-condition.

    Mrs May has repeated that any deal must take Britain out of the EU, end uncontrolled EU migration and allow the country to sign independent trade deals.

    The last two conditions would seem incompatible with continued membership of the EU's single market and a customs union, advocated by Labour.

    EU leaders have said they are willing to negotiate further but have repeatedly said they do not want to reopen the Brexit deal agreed with Mrs May.

    3. No deal 

    Britain is legally on track to leave the EU with or without a deal on March 29, unless it delays or stops the process.

    A no-deal scenario threatens to trigger a recession in Britain and markedly slow the EU's economic growth, and cause significant legal disruption.

    The world's fifth-biggest economy could lose preferential access to its largest export market overnight, affecting every sector, leading to rising costs and disruption at British ports.

    4. Second referendum 

    EU supporters have been calling for another vote ever since the Leave campaign won in the 2016 referendum, and demands have stepped up in recent months.

    No law keeps Britain from doing it all over again, but many question whether this would be democratic - or resolve anything.

    Mrs May has warned that another vote "would do irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics". It also threatens to be just as divisive, with opinion polls showing the country is still split over the issue.

    A majority of MPs would have to support the idea and pass a law to hold the referendum, which would likely result in Brexit being delayed while the process took place. 


"I will then take the conclusions of those discussions back to the EU," Mrs May said. "My focus continues to be on what is needed to secure the support of this House in favour of a Brexit deal with the EU."

The EU, which has an economy more than six times the size of the UK, says it wants an orderly exit but senior officials have expressed frustration and sorrow at London's deepening crisis over Brexit.

"I have often said Shakespeare could not have written any better the tragedy we are now witnessing in Britain," German Europe Minister Michael Roth told broadcaster ARD.

"I am not so sure now, because Shakespeare would have pushed up against the limits of his imagination."

Attempts to forge a consensus with the opposition Labour Party have failed, so Mrs May will focus on securing concessions from the EU in order to win over 118 rebels in her own party and the small Northern Irish party which props up her government.

The EU is ready to work on the political declaration on future EU-UK ties but the Brexit withdrawal deal already agreed is the best one possible, the bloc's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said.

Mrs May was expected to put forward a motion on her proposed next steps on Brexit, though some lawmakers are planning to wrest control of Britain's exit from the government.

Ireland will not engage in bilateral talks on Brexit and will only negotiate as part of the 27 remaining members of the EU, Ireland's European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee said.

After the motion on Mrs May's proposals is published, lawmakers will be able to suggest amendments with alternatives to her deal.

The 650-seat Parliament is deeply divided over Brexit, with different factions of lawmakers supporting a wide range of options including leaving without a deal, holding a second referendum and seeking a customs union with the EU.

Meanwhile, millions of EU citizens living in Britain can register from yesterday for settled status after Brexit but a research group warned that many could still be left out in the cold and some EU nationals are attending support groups to cope with the stress.

Britain is home to about 3.5 million EU nationals and many of those will need to apply for inclusion on a new "settled status" register before July 2021 if they want to stay.

Britain's interior ministry yesterday began the first public testing of the registration system for all EU citizens who hold a valid passport and any non-EU citizen family members who hold a valid biometric residence card.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2019, with the headline 'May revises Brexit strategy in bid to break deadlock'. Print Edition | Subscribe