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Theresa May delays Brexit withdrawal vote, avoiding defeat

British Prime Minister Theresa May, admitting her Brexit withdrawal plan would be defeated in Parliament "by a significant margin," has postponed a vote that had been scheduled for Tuesday.

EU head says Brexit deal not up for renegotiation, despite concerns over backstop for Northern Ireland

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement in the House of Commons Monday, postponing Parliament's vote on her European Union divorce deal to avoid a shattering defeat. (The Associated Press)

British Prime Minister Theresa May, admitting her Brexit withdrawal plan would be defeated in Parliament "by a significant margin," has postponed a vote that had been scheduled for Tuesday.

It's not clear when a vote might occur. Speaking to the House of Commons on Monday, May would only say that the final deadline for a vote on the deal was Jan. 21.

Parliament will hold a three-hour emergency debate on Tuesday on May's decision to defer the vote, Speaker John Bercow announced following a request by the opposition Labour Party.

May cited "widespread concern" over the issue of the backstop for Northern Ireland and said she would head back to Brussels this week to address concerns with European Union negotiators.

The backstop aims to ensure there is no hard land border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which is an EU member. But many U.K. legislators fear the backstop will leave Britain subject indefinitely to EU rules, long after the country has given up a say in drafting them.

May said it was "now clear" the backstop needs to be temporary, but that she was confident she could still win approval in Parliament for her withdrawal plan with further assurances from the EU.

However, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, sent a tweet during Monday's U.K. parliamentary debate, saying the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation for European Union leaders.

"We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate U.K. ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario," the tweet said.

Tusk said Brexit would be discussed at a summit of EU leaders on Dec. 13 and 14.

During Monday's debate, the prime minister sought a commitment from MPs to compromise and deliver Brexit, approved in a vote by the British people in 2016. 

"I don't think the PM set a date ... I think what is important, as she said at a number of occasions, is getting the reassurances that the House needs so we will be led by that process," May's spokesperson told reporters.

Dozens of legislators — both those who back a cleaner break with the EU and those who want closer ties — had publicly promised to vote down May's divorce deal.

'Job-saving tactic'

Femi Oluwole with the advocacy group Our Future Our Choice, which is pro-Remain, said May knows she would be out of a job if MPs were to reject the deal, and now she's "playing for time."

"It's a job-saving tactic," he told CBC News after the vote was postponed, adding that May is hoping that if she delays the vote on the withdrawal agreement long enough, people will feel they will have no choice but to support it.

"It's a complete betrayal of the very essence of parliamentary democracy," Oluwole said.

Theresa May said it was clear her Brexit withdrawal deal was doomed to a significant defeat as currently constituted, and that she will go back to Brussels to seek more assurances 1:58

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn blasted the "shambolic" government and said that May "must make way" if she continues to not listen to the concerns.

"Bringing back the same botched deal … will not change its fundamental flaws and deeply held objections right across this House, which go far wider than the backstop alone," said Corbyn.

"The government's own analysis shows this deal will make us worse off," he added.

Speaker favours vote

May has countered that it is the best deal available, and a no-deal Brexit would be a far worse proposition for the economy and ordinary Britons.

Bercow told parliament it would be "right" that legislators be given a chance have their say on whether or not to delay the vote.

"I politely suggest that in any courteous, respectful and mature environment, allowing the house to have a say would be the right and, dare I say it, the obvious course to take," said Bercow.

May had convened a conference call with senior ministers earlier Monday to discuss what to do with her compromise deal that allowed the United Kingdom to exit while staying in the EU's orbit.

The government had repeatedly insisted the Tuesday vote would go ahead as planned, including after her meeting with the ministers, when May's spokesperson briefed reporters on Monday and said there was no plan to pull the vote.

The pound sterling fell Monday to its lowest level since April 2017, down a sharp 1.7 per cent on the day to $1.2515 US after May spoke.

Pro-Brexit protesters gathered outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday as uncertainty reigned the day ahead of a planned vote on Brexit withdrawal. (Will Oliver/EPA-EFE)

The leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party — which has helped keep May's Conservatives in power through a confidence and supply agreement — said before the parliamentary session that she had told May to scrap the backstop in the Brexit deal.

"Just finished a call with the Prime Minister," Arlene Foster said on Twitter. "My message was clear. The backstop must go. Too much time has been wasted. Need a better deal. Disappointed it has taken so long for Prime Minister to listen."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, meanwhile, said MPs should have the opportunity to vote on the withdrawal agreement, even if it would mean the government would lose the vote.

"This is a watershed moment and an act of pathetic cowardice by a Tory government which has run out of road and is now collapsing into utter chaos," Sturgeon said in a statement of the apparent decision to delay the vote.

EU court gives Britain way out?

May's announcement came just hours after the top EU court ruled that Britain could cancel its notice to leave the bloc.

The uncertainty came hours after the European Union's top court ruled that the United Kingdom can unilaterally revoke its divorce notice, raising the hopes of pro-Europeans ahead of a crucial vote in the British parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce deal.

The Court of Justice said in an emergency judgment that London could revoke its Article 50 formal divorce notice with no penalty.

Critics of May's deal say the ruling provides options — either to delay Brexit and renegotiate withdrawal terms, or cancel it if British voters change their minds.

May admitted the vote on Brexit in Parliament scheduled for Tuesday would have seen the government defeated soundly. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

The timing of the ruling on the eve of the British parliamentary vote was not a coincidence: the court said it had ruled with unprecedented haste to ensure that British lawmakers would understand their options.

It also defied the EU's own executive, which had argued permission was needed from other EU states to stop Brexit. Britain could stay with no penalty, it ruled, despite some European leaders saying it should have to give up perks agreed over the years, such as a valuable rebate on its dues.

"The United Kingdom is free to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the EU," it said. "Such a revocation, decided in accordance with its own national constitutional requirements, would have the effect that the United Kingdom remains in the EU under terms that are unchanged."

Arriving to meet EU counterparts in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the ruling "irrelevant." The majority of British voters, who decided in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU, would be "shocked and very angry" if Brexit were halted.

Another referendum?

Opponents say the deal could keep Britain subject to some EU rules indefinitely, even after it gives up its influence over setting them. May's government says the terms are the only way to exit while protecting the supply chains of British business.

In the June 23, 2016 referendum, 52 per cent backed Brexit. Polls suggest a re-run would still be close, although some older voters, who mainly voted to leave, have died and young people who mostly want to stay have reached voting age.

A growing number of backbench members of parliament says the only way out may be a new referendum, an option publicly backed by three of the four living former prime ministers.

Michael Gove, the most prominent Brexit campaigner in the British government, said the court's ruling "doesn't alter either the referendum vote or the clear intention of the government to leave on March 29."

"We don't want to stay in the EU," Gove, who serves as environment minister, told BBC Radio.

"We voted very clearly. 17.4 million people sent a clear message that we wanted to leave the European Union and that also means leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story identified the Democratic Unionist Party as being from Scotland. In fact, the DUP is in Northern Ireland.
    Dec 10, 2018 8:32 AM ET

With files from CBC News