LONDON: The British parliament tried to find an alternative to Theresa May’s twice-defeated Brexit deal on Wednesday as the prime minister readied a last ditch effort to win over rebels in her party, possibly by giving a timetable for quitting.
As the United Kingdom’s three-year Brexit crisis spins toward its finale, it is still uncertain how, when or even if it will leave the European Union, though May hopes to bring her deal back to parliament later this week.
With British politics at fever pitch, lawmakers on Wednesday grabbed control to have so-called indicative votes on Brexit, with eight options ranging from leaving abruptly with no deal to revoking the divorce papers or holding a new referendum.
Several options on the table would see much closer alignments with the EU than May has been willing to consider, including staying in the common market or a customs union.
Just two days before the United Kingdom had been originally due to leave the EU on March 29, some of the most influential Brexit-supporting rebels, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, have reluctantly fallen in behind May’s deal.
The price for May could be her job, though it was unclear if even that would be enough to get her deal approved.
“We can guarantee delivering on Brexit if this week he and others in this House support the deal,” May told Andrew Bridgen, a Brexit-supporting lawmaker in her party who has called on her to resign.
She may indicate a timetable for her departure at a showdown with lawmakers from her Conservative Party at around 1700 GMT. May’s spokesman said she was totally focused on the job in hand.
Ahead of May’s meeting, lawmakers started debating what sort of EU divorce the world’s fifth largest economy should go for. They will vote at 1900 GMT on a ballot paper for as many proposals as they wish. Results will be announced after 2100.
“There has been no insurgency here,” said Oliver Letwin, a 62-year-old Conservative former cabinet minister who has led parliament’s unusual power grab.
Letwin said that if May passed her deal this week then parliament’s attempt to find an alternative would be halted.
The uncertainty around Brexit, the United Kingdom’s most significant political and economic move since World War Two, has left allies and investors aghast.
European Council chief Donald Tusk urged the European Parliament to be open to a long extension and not to ignore those British people who wanted to remain in the EU.
Nearly six million people have signed a petition in the past week calling for Britain to cancel Brexit. Hundreds of thousands marched on Saturday in London to demand a new referendum, one of the biggest demonstrations in British history.
Most British voters think the negotiation has been handled badly, though there may now be a slight majority for staying in the EU, recent polls have shown.
The campaign chief of the 2016 “Vote Leave” group, Dominic Cummings, said opponents of EU membership should start rebuilding their campaign network and would win by a bigger margin if there were another referendum.
Supporters of Brexit say while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive. Opponents say it will leave Britain poorer and weaker, cut off from its main trade partners.
May’s deal was defeated in parliament by 149 votes on March 12 and by 230 votes on Jan. 15. She wants Britain to leave the single market and customs union as well as EU political bodies. But her deal requires some EU rules to apply unless some other means can be found in future to ensure no border is rebuilt between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
Dozens of pro-Brexit lawmakers are still opposed to May’s deal, one of the party’s MPs, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters, adding the “hardcore” was holding firm.
A spokesman for May said it would only be put to a vote when there was a realistic chance of success.
To succeed, May needs at least 75 lawmakers to come over – dozens of rebels in her Conservative Party, some opposition Labour Party lawmakers and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.
As May’s team sought to win over rebels, lawmakers started to debate alternatives, though it was uncertain if there was a majority for another course.
“This is not about the number of votes precisely cast for one motion or another,” Letwin said. “It’s about whether when we look at the results as a whole … we get enough data to enable us to have sensible conversations about where we can go next. That is what I think would constitute a success here.”
Conservative lawmakers will be able to vote as they wish without orders from the party leadership. The main opposition Labour party will tell its lawmakers to back the customs union and new referendum options.
The government could try to ignore the votes, though if May’s deal fails then an election could be the only way to avoid parliament’s alternative proposal. Letwin said parliament could try to force the government to follow its advice on Brexit. [nS8N20Y06J]
The Sun newspaper said Graham Brady, chairman of the so-called 1922 Committee made up of Conservative lawmakers, told May the party’s lawmakers want her to set out a timetable to quit by the summer.
As some Brexit supporters came behind her deal, the DUP said it was not willing to risk the integrity of the United Kingdom.
“This deal will endanger the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK,” a party statement quoted its European lawmaker Diane Dodds as telling the European Parliament. “It is not a price that we as Unionists are willing to pay.”