MPs debate Brexit deal after setback for May

LONDON • British MPs yesterday began five days of debate ahead of a historic delayed vote on Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May’s Brexit deal, a day after giving her a stinging blow aimed at preventing Britain from crashing out of the bloc with no agreement.

Lawmakers will vote next Tuesday on the agreement that May has negotiated with the European Union (EU) over the last 18 months, which faces daunting Opposition as the clock ticks down before Britain leaves the EU.

The PM has warned rebels in her own party that defeat will lead to a no-deal Brexit, or no departure from the bloc at all.

But in a major setback on Tuesday that presages likely defeat in next week’s vote, MPs approved an amendment that will curtail the government’s tax powers in case of a no-deal Brexit.

David Lidington, May’s effective deputy, called the House of Commons defeat “inconvenient” yet ineffectual and insisted the government remained focused on winning approval for the PM’s plan.

However, ardent Brexit supporters who favour a clean break when Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29 look set to rebel over fears the draft divorce deal could lead to some kind of customs union with the bloc.

The PM has already pulled the vote once with defeat looming, and a loss for the government would plunge Britain into “uncharted territory”, according to May.

She is still seeking assurances from the EU on the most controversial elements of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland, in a bid to convince critics to back the agreement.

These assurances are set to be delivered to lawmakers before they vote, although not before they start their debate yesterday.

“The work to secure those assurances is ongoing. I think what’s important is that if we are to secure assurances, MPs are aware of what they are before the vote takes place,” a Downing Street spokesman said.

The government has recently made much-publicised preparations for leaving without a deal, regardless of whether May’s deal is approved, drawing ire from MPs who insist no deal must be ruled out.

A cross-party group of 209 lawmakers sent the PM a letter on Sunday urging her “to agree a mechanism that would ensure a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could not take place”.

Some MPs would be in favour of a second referendum, but such a move would likely cause outrage among Brexit voters and raise the issue of the framing of the question.

A PR battle has reached fever pitch as the deadline looms, with second referendum campaigners setting up stalls at markets nationwide, while Brexiteers are also touring the country pushing for a clean break.

May insists Britain will leave the EU in March whatever happens, but there is growing talk of delaying the two-year Article 50 exit process to give her some breathing space to get her deal agreed.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay denied reports about a possible delay, saying “there are people in the EU who are discussing this issue, but that is not the position of the UK government”. — AFP