U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May says she has secured the concessions required to get her divisive Brexit deal through parliament at the second time of asking.
MPs will vote on the withdrawal agreement she has hammered out with European Union officials at around 7 p.m. on Tuesday, less than three weeks before the U.K. is set to leave the trading bloc.
U.K. politicians overwhelmingly rejected the deal at a vote in January, largely because of concerns about the Irish backstop clause — an insurance policy to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, which Brexit backers feared would lock the U.K. into a permanent customs union with the EU.
But May said the changes thrashed out in a meeting with the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, late Monday should be enough to assuage MPs’ concerns. Juncker, meanwhile, warned there was no more room for maneuver.
If May’s deal fails to pass the House of Commons for a second time, parliamentarians will then be offered two separate votes, scheduled for this week, on whether they want to avoid a no-deal Brexit, and the option of extending the deadline for leaving the EU beyond March 29.
, currently around the $1.30 mark, is expected to rally on any clear sign that a no-deal exit will be avoided.
How did we get here?
U.K. and European Union negotiators agreed the terms of their divorce and a rough outline for their future relationship in November 2018, almost 2½ years after Britain voted to leave.
But following Parliament’s rejection of that deal in January, May has been battling to secure concessions from the EU.
Topping her wish list are tweaks to the withdrawal agreement’s Irish backstop, the contentious plan to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, something the U.K. committed to in the 1999 Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the province. But Brexit backers now say that keeping common customs rules across that border would trap the U.K. permanently in the EU’s orbit.
From the archives (April 2018): Northern Ireland is betting on a high-tech future — with cruise-ship tourism
EU negotiators are playing hardball — backed by the Irish government — and time is running out for May to break the Brexit deadlock. The U.K. is currently set to leave the bloc on March 29.
What’s happening this week?
On Monday evening, May announced she had secured some last-minute changes from Brussels chiefs on the Irish border issue.
May claimed these would reduce the likelihood of the U.K. being stuck in the backstop. But they fell short of offering a unilateral exit, or a specific end date for the arrangement — the two concessions required to win the backing of Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmakers in tonight’s vote.
Advice published by the U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on Tuesday morning suggested nothing had changed from a legal standpoint, a heavy blow to the prime minister’s efforts to bring doubters onto her side. Sterling dropped on the news.
So what now?
If Theresa May nonetheless secures Parliament’s backing tonight, the U.K. would begin its final preparations to exit from the EU.
Since the process has gone down so close to the wire, it is expected that the official Brexit Day of March 29 will have to be delayed for practical reasons. It is expected that May would ask EU leaders at their next scheduled meeting on March 21 for a short extension of a couple of months.
That would give Britain the extra time it requires to pass all Brexit-related legislation through Parliament before it officially splits from the bloc.
What happens if May’s deal is rejected?
Much depends on how big a defeat May suffers in this scenario. If her deal is rejected by a small majority, of say fewer than 50 politicians, May could seek to win further concessions from the EU at the March 21 summit, and push to hold a third vote on her deal the following week.
But she would first need to abide by promises made to parliamentarians last month. Under pressure from pro-EU lawmakers in February, she pledged that if her deal was rejected, she would hold a vote on leaving the EU without any deal, and then if that were rejected, a vote to approve a “short” delay to Brexit.
The no-deal vote is expected on Wednesday, and a large majority of MPs are expected to reject that idea as well. The further vote on an extension to the Brexit process is likely to happen either the same day or the day after.
But it remains unclear if enough British parliamentarians will back the June extension favored by May, or push for a still-longer deferral. Pro-EU politicians would like a delay long enough for them to hold a second referendum on staying in the EU.
If a large majority of up to 230 politicians opt to reject May’s deal on Tuesday, the heavy defeat will embolden pro-Europeans to mount another bid to seize control of the Brexit process. Pro-Brexit politicians, meanwhile, would likely ramp up their efforts to oust May and replace her with one of their number.
Are there any alternatives to May’s deal?
Several British politicians argue that the U.K. should instead push for some form of membership in the European Economic Area. This is sometimes called the “Norway plus” option, referencing the EEA’s largest member.
Norway and the other EEA countries can access the European single market without being full members; the “plus” would be an additional proposal to also keep the U.K. in the customs union, in the hopes of preventing a hard border in Ireland.
Nick Boles, an influential pro-European Conservative lawmaker, plans to put forward a measure pushing this option. Staying in Europe’s single market is certainly an attractive prospect to U.S. businesses in London. The model also has significant support in Parliament and in the EU.
But it is reviled by prominent Brexit-backing lawmakers, as well as influential City regulators and U.K.-focused financial institutions who all warn that it would leave the U.K. overly exposed to European rules without a say in their making.
What about a second referendum?
May is adamant that the public has already had its say. EU officials, meanwhile, have suggested they could allow an extension to the U.K.’s two-year exit period for another referendum.
It remains unclear what question would be put to voters or even whether enough politicians would support the move. The leaders of the opposition Labour Party last month gave those campaigning for such a poll a significant boost by confirming it would be officially backing a second referendum.
But Labour’s Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, has said his party won’t push this week for another Brexit poll, opting instead to wait until such a move is most likely to win the support of the majority of British parliamentarians.
Can May survive?
It is uncertain.
Not only are influential Brexit-backing politicians in May’s Conservative Party already pushing for her to step aside as soon as possible after her the U.K. officially exits the EU.
But Westminster insiders also say Labour MPs could be persuaded to trigger another vote of no confidence in May’s government — a ploy that could succeed with the backing of enough frustrated Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmakers. One politico said: “The moment of maximum danger for her is when she comes out with her next plan, having had talks, having seen what the house thinks, and deciding, ‘Right, this what I am going to go for.’ ”
If a majority of MPs were to support a second no-confidence motion, Parliament would have 14 days to form a new government before an election was called. May could also opt to trigger a snap election. Either way, a poll is a distinct possibility. Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s top civil servant, in January told government departments to ready themselves for one.
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