Britain’s government and its lawmakers clashed Wednesday, as Prime Minister Theresa May brought her little-loved Brexit deal back to Parliament, a month after postponing a vote on the agreement to stave off near-certain defeat.
The House of Commons opened five days of debate on an agreement with the European Union setting out the terms of Britain’s departure from the bloc on March 29.
A vote, initially slated for mid-December, is now scheduled for Tuesday — and the government still looks likely to lose.
May insisted that her agreement was the only one available, and the only way to prevent a disruptive “no-deal” Brexit in just over 10 weeks.
“The only way to avoid no deal is to vote for the deal,” May told lawmakers in the House of Commons.
May called off the December vote at the last minute when it became clear that a majority of lawmakers — from the governing Conservatives as well as opposition parties — opposed the deal, a compromise that has left both pro-European and pro-Brexit politicians unhappy.
May promised to seek reassurances from the EU on the most contentious issue, the status of the Northern Ireland-Ireland border. But the bloc refuses to reopen the agreement, and opposition to the negotiated deal remains strong among British lawmakers.
May told lawmakers that “further clarification” from the EU was possible, “and those talks will continue over the next few days.”
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said that “not one single dot or comma has changed” since December’s aborted vote.
“Isn’t the prime minister bringing back exactly the same deal she admitted would be defeated four weeks ago?” he asked.
Amid the political stalemate, pro-Brexit members of Parliament are urging the government to ramp up preparations for leaving the EU without a deal. But many lawmakers, and businesses, say that would cause economic turmoil, as goods moving between Britain and the EU suddenly faced customs checks, tariffs and other barriers.
A group of lawmakers from both government and opposition parties is trying to assert Parliament’s authority and tie the government’s hands to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
On Wednesday, the House of Commons voted to prevent the government delaying key decisions as Brexit approaches. Lawmakers approved a motion saying that if Parliament rejects the divorce deal May has agreed with the European Union, the government must come up with a “Plan B” within three days.
The government previously had 21 days to report back to Parliament.
It was the government’s second Brexit-related defeat in two days. On
Tuesday, legislators backed an amendment to the Finance Bill that puts roadblocks in the way of government spending on no-deal Brexit measures.
The vote, which saw 20 legislators from May’s Conservative Party rebel and side with the opposition, indicates that a majority in Parliament opposes leaving the EU without an agreement and will try to stop it happening.
But there is no clear majority for any single alternate course. Among the competing proposals are postponing Brexit to seek a new deal, calling a general election or holding a second EU membership referendum.
Labour said it would try to trigger an election by calling for a no-confidence vote in the government if May’s deal is defeated next week. There’s no guarantee Labour could marshal the majority support in Parliament needed to topple the government — and even if it did, a new election would not automatically stop the Brexit countdown clock.
A top European parliamentarian urged British lawmakers to show “responsibility” over the divorce deal.
Manfred Weber, a German conservative who heads the biggest group in the European Parliament, said in Berlin that “our colleagues in Britain’s lower house carry great responsibility now — the agreement is on the table.”
Weber said a no-deal withdrawal would “lead to very difficult, perhaps even chaotic situations.”
Britain’s de-facto deputy Prime Minister, David Lidington, said politicians must abandon “fantasies about magical alternative deals that are somehow going to sort of spring out of a cupboard in Brussels.”
He said the choice was between May’s deal, no deal or “to reverse the 2016 referendum entirely.”
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