U.K.’s May Faces Heavy Defeat in Parliament as Brexit Crisis Grips Britain

LONDON (Reuters) -
An anti-Brexit placard outside the Houses of Parliament in London. (Reuters/Toby Melville)

British Prime Minster Theresa May’s Brexit deal faces a heavy defeat in Parliament on Tuesday because she has so far secured no major changes from the European Union, the leaders of two major euroskeptic factions in Parliament said on Sunday.

Just 19 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29, May is scrambling – so far unsuccessfully – to secure last-minute changes to an EU exit treaty before Parliament votes on Tuesday on whether to approve the deal.

If she fails, lawmakers are expected to force May to seek a delay to Brexit which some fear could see the 2016 decision to leave the bloc reversed. Others argue that without a delay Britain faces an economic shock if it leaves without a deal.

Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up May’s minority government, and Steve Baker, a leading figure in the large euroskeptic faction of her Conservative party, warned “the political situation is grim.”

“An unchanged withdrawal agreement will be defeated firmly by a sizable proportion of Conservatives and the DUP if it is again presented to the Commons,” they wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.

The Sunday Times said May was battling to save her job as aides were considering persuading her to offer to resign in a bid to get the deal approved. The newspaper also said Cabinet ministers have spoken about whether to insist she goes as early as this week.

The United Kingdom’s labyrinthine crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an extraordinary array of options including a delay, a last-minute deal, no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.

The ultimate outcome remains unclear, though most diplomats and investors say Brexit will define the United Kingdom’s prosperity for generations to come.

Parliament rejected May’s deal by 230 votes on Jan. 15, prompting the British leader to return to Brussels in search of changes to address the so-called Irish backstop – an insurance policy designed to prevent the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Many British lawmakers object to the policy on the grounds that it could leave Britain subject to EU rules indefinitely and cleave Northern Ireland away from the rest of the country.

But May’s attempts to get the clause rewritten have so far failed to yield any result, with EU negotiators unwilling to meet her demands, and Britain rejecting a compromise offer.

If lawmakers reject May’s deal on Tuesday, she has promised to let them vote the next day on whether to leave without a deal on March 29. If they reject that, then on Thursday they are due to vote on a “limited” delay.

“In the event of this vote on Tuesday not going through, nobody knows what would happen. In everything that followed there would be total uncertainty – that would be the only certainty,” Health Minister Matt Hancock told Sky News.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party should support staying in the EU if there is a second referendum, the party’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, said on Sunday.

However, Starmer said the party would not be seeking to secure support in Parliament for a second referendum on Tuesday.

Amid the political chaos, many company chiefs are aghast at London’s handling of Brexit and say it has already damaged Britain’s reputation as Europe’s preeminent destination for foreign investment.

“Business is holding its breath ahead of the votes in Parliament this week, knowing that if Brexit has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected,” said James Stewart, head of Brexit at KPMG UK.

“Companies are now split on whether an extension to the Brexit timeline is a good thing. Some of those who prepared early are locked into March-specific contingency plans. Those carrying additional inventory know an extension will squeeze their cash flow for longer.”