May faces losing control over Brexit despite gamble on Backstop
Theresa May faces losing control of Brexit to Parliament on Tuesday in a series of crucial votes that will shape Britain's split from the European Union.
Despite a last-minute gamble aimed at buying off rebels in her Conservative Party, the prime minister will face a knife-edge battle to block a proposal that would hand Parliament the power to delay the process and prevent a no-deal divorce.
The leadership of the opposition Labour Party was preparing to order its MPs to vote for the amendment, put forward by Labour's Yvette Cooper and Tory Nick Boles as May scrambled for a compromise all sides could support.
In a dramatic meeting Monday evening, the prime minister effectively abandoned the agreement she’s spent the past 18 months negotiating with the EU and threw the weight of her government behind a separate proposal to re-write the deal.
May urged hundreds of Conservative politicians crammed into a room inside Parliament to support another amendment that would strip out the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border, wrecking a compromise she’s agreed to with the EU in the hope of securing one with her own party.
Resolving the impasse
May's move was intended to win over hardline Brexit backers who joined with opposition MPs on 15 January to reject her EU divorce package. It was the biggest government defeat in the House of Commons for more than a century and prompted two weeks of soul-searching and debate over how to resolve the impasse inside the government.
Previously implacable factions in the Conservative Party have even held private talks to seek a consensus around asking the EU for a modified backstop and an extra year's transition. Whatsapp discussions between politicians, including leading euroskeptic Jacob Rees-Mogg and Pro-EU Nicky Morgan, were made public Monday night and confirmed by the two sides.
If the House of Commons does not ratify a Brexit agreement, the UK will tumble out of the bloc with no new trading terms in place on 29 March. That risks a recession, a hit to the pound and a crash in house prices, according to official analysis from the authorities in Britain.
May, who will close Tuesday's debate, now hopes her Tory party will say clearly what it wants to change in the deal she's struck with the EU. Her aim is to send a message to Brussels that the Irish border backstop must be ditched or radically redrafted, and persuade the EU to change position so a new deal can pass through Parliament.
According to an EU official, though, the amendment proposed by Graham Brady has little chance of persuading the bloc to make compromises. The proposal appears to only leave scope for the backstop to be overtaken by a better solution -- of which there is no evidence of one at this point. It will be "extraordinarily difficult" for the UK to win concessions or remove the backstop unless it moves its own red lines, the official said.
May, who will meet with her cabinet on Tuesday morning, also faces major hurdles when her latest gambit is put to a test in a vote expected in the Commons later in the day.
'String things out'
So far, May's euroskeptic colleagues in the European Research Group have said they're unlikely to be persuaded to support her call, though they will not finalize their position until just before Tuesday's votes.
Instead, the Cooper and Boles plan could now win more backing from politicians who are determined to stop a no-deal Brexit and ensure they have the power to delay the UK's divorce from the EU if necessary.
"When will the PM understand that the ideological leaders of the ERG do not want a deal? They just want to string things out until it is too late," Boles said in a posting on Twitter. "Pragmatic Conservatives should support the Cooper amendment tomorrow and shoot the no-deal fox."
In an effort to appease those Tories who are proposing to back Boles and Cooper’s plan to delay Brexit, May promised they would have another chance to vote to stop Britain leaving the bloc without a deal, according to people in the room Monday. She said the government will come back to make a statement to Parliament on the next steps if no Brexit deal has been agreed by 13 February.
'A clear message'
Labour will not formally say if it will order its MPs to back the plan until House of Commons Speaker John Bercow announces which amendments have been chosen for consideration on Tuesday morning, but three people familiar with the leadership’s thinking said it was minded to support it.
If Labour whips its support, May's minority administration will need most of its own rebels to fall into line while hoping that Labour MPs who are concerned at being accused by voters of frustrating Brexit will abstain or vote with the government.
Even so, Brandon Lewis, the chairman of May's Tory party, said he is "very optimistic and hopeful" that his colleagues will get behind the new backstop-killing amendment.
"It will allow the prime minister to go back to Brussels with a clear message," he told reporters after the meeting. "We want to get this vote through tomorrow."
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