U.K. Parliament rejects motion to buy May government more Brexit time

British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered the latest embarrassing defeat to her Brexit strategy on Thursday, with the House of Commons rejecting a motion to buy her government more time to seek changes to a divorce agreement with the EU.

MPs vote 303-258 against allowing government more time to seek changes to deal with EU

British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy was dealt a fresh defeat in the House of Commons on Thursday, as the clock ticks down toward her country's March 29 scheduled departure from the European Union. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered the latest embarrassing defeat to her Brexit strategy on Thursday, with the House of Commons rejecting a motion to buy her government more time to seek changes to a divorce agreement with the EU.

MPs voted 303-258 against the non-binding motion, which hard-line pro-Brexit lawmakers in May's Conservative Party argued would effectively rule out the threat of a break with the European Union without a new trade deal, a move they said undermines Britain's bargaining position.

The defeat is symbolic rather than binding, but shows how weak May's hand is as she tries to secure changes to her divorce deal from the EU in order to win backing for it in Parliament.

The government was defeated when pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers abstained because they feel the government is effectively ruling out the threat of leaving the EU without an agreement on departure terms and future relations, a move they say undermines Britain's bargaining position.

"Conservative MPs really ought not to be associated with anything, express or implied, which seems to take 'no deal' off the table," said Brexit-backing Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker in a tweet ahead of the vote.

Pro-EU lawmakers in Britain's divided Parliament feel the opposite. They fear time is running out to seal a deal, but the House of Commons on Thursday rejected two amendments from the opposition that sought to postpone Brexit or steer the U.K. away from the "no-deal" scenario.

​Jeremy Corbyn, who heads the main opposition Labour Party, accused May of sitting on her hands, "hoping something will turn up that will save the day and save her face."

Lawmakers intent on averting a "no-deal" Brexit are gathering forces to make a push in a new series of votes on Feb. 27 to force the government's hand.

By then, Brexit will be only a month away.

'Wrong signals' to the EU

While the vote does not force the government to change tack, the numbers will undermine EU leaders' confidence that May can win Parliament's support for a revised agreement.

The latest twist in the two-year negotiation to leave the EU underlines the deep divisions in Parliament over how, or even whether, Britain should leave the bloc in its biggest political and trade policy shift in more than 40 years.

It also increases the possibility of Britain leaving without a deal, a nightmare scenario for many businesses, but also of Brexit being delayed or potentially never happening.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a prominent Brexit supporter in cabinet, said earlier Thursday that a government defeat on the motion would send the wrong signal to the EU.

"They will be looking to see whether Parliament is showing consistency," he said. "I think that there's a danger that we send the wrong signals and I think that we need to understand that the public want us to leave the European Union but they would prefer us to leave the European Union with a deal."

Two amendments to the motion — one that would have attempted to put off Britain's departure date from the EU by three months, and a second that would have called for a new debate or vote on May's revised Brexit plan by Feb. 27 — were defeated by wide margins in the Commons.

A third, which would have called on the government to publish its analysis of the impact of a "no-deal" Brexit on business and trade, was withdrawn moments before it would have gone to a vote.

'No-deal' Brexit a no-go

Two weeks ago, Parliament voted to send May back to Brussels to seek changes to a section of the withdrawal agreement intended to ensure an open border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.

Lawmakers also voted to rule out a "no-deal" exit scenario, though without signalling how that should happen.

May has refused to rule out a "no-deal" Brexit as she attempts to win concessions from the EU. Most businesses and economists say the British economy would be severely damaged if the country crashed out of the bloc on the scheduled Brexit date without a deal, bringing tariffs and other impediments to trade.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told lawmakers "the only way to avoid 'no-deal' is either to secure a deal on the terms the prime minister has set out" or to cancel Brexit — something the government says it won't do.

The remaining 27 EU member states insist that the legally binding withdrawal agreement struck with May's government in November can't be renegotiated.

Leaders of the bloc have expressed exasperation at Britain's desire for last-minute changes, and failure to offer firm proposals.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs summits of EU leaders, said in a tweet: "No news is not always good news. EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break Brexit impasse."

May was scrambling Thursday to avoid another defeat on her Brexit strategy amid opposition from members of her own party who claim she is moving in the wrong direction in efforts to overcome the impasse blocking a deal.

With files from CBC News and Reuters

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