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07 December 2023

Britain faces calls for unity govt amid Brexit impasse

Photo: AP


The U.K. may be forced to create a national unity government to end the impasse over Britain leaving the European Union, as Prime Minister Theresa May clings to the Brexit divorce agreement that Parliament has rejected three times, a senior Conservative suggested Saturday.

Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s comments came a day after the House of Commons rebuffed the prime minister’s call for lawmakers to “put aside self and party,” sending her Brexit deal to its latest defeat.

The rejection leaves the U.K. facing the stark prospect of a chaotic departure from the EU in just two weeks — unless squabbling politicians can put aside their differences and engineer a long delay in the process of leaving the bloc.

The British Parliament will vote Monday on a variety of Brexit alternatives in an attempt to find an idea that can command a majority.

But May’s government is considering a fourth vote on her deal, bolstered by their success in narrowing her margin of defeat to 58 votes Friday from 230 votes in January.

“If the government refused and Theresa May felt she could not implement what Parliament had identified as a way of leaving the EU, then I think we would have to think very hard about whether a cross-party coalition ... could do that in order to make sure that the U.K. does leave the EU in an orderly fashion,” Morgan told the BBC.

As a result of Friday’s vote, the U.K. is now scheduled to leave the EU on April 12, regardless of whether the two sides have reached an agreement to cushion the impact.

That has led to concerns about crippling tariffs, border gridlock and shortages of food and medicines.

EU officials have suggested, however, they may agree to a lengthy delay to Britain’s departure from the bloc if U.K. politicians agree on a plan.

The House of Commons on Wednesday began the process of debating alternatives to the prime minister’s deal but rejected all eight proposals they considered.

Two ideas, a customs union with the EU and a second referendum on any deal, achieved significant support.

Lawmakers are expected to hold a second round of votes Monday on Brexit proposals.

Hilary Benn, a Labour Party lawmaker who chairs Parliament’s Brexit committee, dismissed criticism that the parliamentary process was a failure because it didn’t deliver a majority in the first round of voting.

Benn said he hopes the latest defeat for May’s deal will “concentrate minds” and help build a clear majority for one of the Brexit options.

“Since it took 2 3/4 years for the government to get what it had negotiated defeated three times, it’s a little bit harsh on Parliament, when it started the process last Wednesday, for not having immediately solved the problem in 24 hours,” Benn said. “So I think a little bit more time is a perfectly reasonable thing to provide as we try and find a way forward.”

While Benn and Morgan are pushing for compromise, others are demanding that the Conservative-led government not cave in.

Some hard-line Conservative Party lawmakers have written to May insisting that she not agree to a Brexit extension beyond May 22, which would force the U.K. to take part in the May 23-26 European Parliament elections, The Sun newspaper reported.

The letter, signed by 170 members of the prime minister’s party, called on May to bring her deal back to Parliament for a fourth vote, with the threat of a general election if it is rejected again, the newspaper said.

Brandon Lewis, a Cabinet member and chairman of the Conservative Party, said he was aware of the letter, though he had not seen the final text or the signatures.

“We should be doing everything we can to leave the European Union in good order as quickly as we can, as we said in our manifesto and as we’ve said to Parliament,” Lewis said.

“I think the deal is the right way to do that.”

UK lawmakers reject Brexit deal for third time

British MPs on Friday rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's EU divorce deal for a third time, opening the way for a long delay to Brexit - or a chaotic "no deal" withdrawal in two weeks.

The pound slipped as lawmakers defied May's plea to end the deadlock that has plunged Britain into a deep political crisis, defeating her withdrawal agreement by 344 votes to 286.

Britain had been due to leave the EU on Friday, the long-heralded March 29 "Independence Day", but with paralysis in parliament May asked European leaders last week for a little more time.

She now faces having to explain what happens next, after EU Council President Donald Tusk immediately called a Brussels summit for April 10.

The EU has set a deadline of April 12 for a decision, with two likely options: Britain leaves with no deal at all, or agrees a lengthy extension to allow time for a new approach.

The prime minister has said it would be "unacceptable" to ask voters to take part in European Parliament elections in May, three years after they voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU.

MPs have repeatedly rejected a "no-deal" outcome, fearing catastrophe if Britain severs ties with its closest trading partner with no plan in place.

However, this is still the default legal option, and the European Commission said after Friday's vote that this remained the "likely scenario".

This was echoed by the French presidency, which said London must "urgently present an alternative plan in the next few days".

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas added: "We are running out of time to prevent a disorderly Brexit."

Election talk

Thousands of flag-waving protesters gathered outside parliament on Friday to accuse MPs of betraying Brexit, holding up signs saying "Give Our kingdom back" and "Free Britain now".

Inside, May said she would keep pressing for an "orderly Brexit", but added: "The implications of the house's decision are grave."

The prime minister had offered to quit if MPs backed the deal, but while some of her critics fell in behind her, 34 of the 314 MPs in her Conservative party still rebelled.

"I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this house," she said.

Her comments sparked speculation she might call an election as the only way to break the impasse, something opposition parties have called for.

But her spokesman said she did not believe this would be "in the interests of the country".

May's authority lies in tatters after weeks of turmoil, but officials have hinted she might yet try to bring the deal back to MPs for a fourth and final time.

Her spokesman noted the numbers against the deal were falling, from a majority of 230 in January, to 149 earlier this month and now 58, adding: "We are at least going in the right direction."