Theresa May urges MPs to reconsider Brexit deal as key vote looms

British Prime Minister Theresa May urged lawmakers on Monday to take a "second look" at her deal to leave the European Union, in a last-ditch effort to win over a House of Commons that looks set to reject the agreement.

House of Commons expected to vote Tuesday against May's divorce deal with EU

This week is high stakes for British Prime Minister Theresa May as she tries to salvage her Brexit deal in the face of stiff opposition. (Ben Birchall/Reuters)

British Prime Minister Theresa May made a frantic last push Monday to swing lawmakers' support behind her seemingly doomed Brexit deal, warning that its defeat risked scuttling the U.K.'s departure from the European Union and "betraying the vote of the British people."

May claimed to have gotten reassurances with "legal force" on key issues from the EU, and said history books would judge Parliament harshly if lawmakers did not back Britain's orderly exit from the EU when they vote on the agreement Tuesday.

She urged skeptical lawmakers in the House of Commons to take a "second look" at the deal. 
​"No it is not perfect. And yes it is a compromise," she said. "With just 74 days to go until [Brexit day] the 29th of March, the consequences of voting against this deal tomorrow are becoming ever clearer," she said.

The fate of the United Kingdom's exit from the EU is in the balance before Tuesday, when Parliament is widely expected to vote against May's deal, opening up outcomes ranging from a disorderly divorce to reversing Brexit.

Amid the deepest crisis in British politics for at least half a century, May and EU leaders exchanged letters giving assurances on her withdrawal agreement, though there was little sign of a change of heart among rebel lawmakers.

May used a speech at a china factory in the leave-supporting city of Stoke-on-Trent in central England to say lawmakers blocking Brexit altogether was now a more likely outcome than Britain leaving without a deal.

Deluge of criticism

May has refused to budge over her deal, despite criticism from all quarters. The agreement, which envisages close economic ties with the EU, has united the opposing sides of the debate — pro-EU lawmakers who see it as the worst of all worlds, and Brexit supporters who say it will make Britain a vassal state.

As the world's biggest trading bloc tried to brace for an unpredictable ride, Spain said the EU could agree to extend the deadline for Brexit, but not beyond elections for the European Parliament due in May.

On Sunday, May warned lawmakers that failing to deliver Brexit would be catastrophic for democracy, and her ministers said thwarting the outcome of the 2016 referendum could lead to rise in far-right populism.

As part of the effort to get the deal approved by Parliament, the EU and May set out some assurances in a choreographed exchange of letters on Monday.

'Backstop' questions

The EU told May it stood by commitments to find ways to avoid triggering the controversial "Irish backstop" in their Brexit deal and this pledge had legal weight.

In a joint reply to questions from May, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU stood by its commitment to try to reach a post-Brexit trade deal by the end of next year in order to avoid using the unpopular backstop.

While stressing nothing in their letter could be seen as changing or being inconsistent with the draft treaty agreed with May last month, they said a commitment to speedy trade deal made by EU leaders had "legal value" that committed the Union "in the most solemn manner."

Watch: Brexit vote brings worry along Irish border

One of the biggest issues with the Brexit deal is the so-called backstop along the Irish border. It's meant to avoid re-establishing a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which remains a member of the European Union. The decades of violence may be over where these two nations meet, but the spectre of a new type of separation has brought fears of new troubles. 2:56

However, even if the target date were not met, they wrote, Britain would have the option to extend a status-quo transition period to avoid triggering the backstop, which is meant to avoid a hard customs border for Northern Ireland.

"If the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would only apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided," they said.

May said the assurances might not go far enough for some lawmakers, and the small Northern Irish party that props up her government said it was insufficient.

Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said he could not support the deal, and his party's desire to get it renegotiated meant it could not support any move by the opposition Labour Party to press for a non-confidence vote.

With a no-deal Brexit as the default option if May's deal is defeated, some lawmakers plan to pull control of Brexit from the government.

Though May is weakened, the executive has significant powers, especially during times of crisis, so it was unclear how Parliament would be able to take control of Brexit.

Protesters wearing yellow vests waited to participate in an anti-Brexit demonstration march in central London over the weekend. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

If May's deal is defeated and the government is unable to have any amended version passed in the next three weeks, one suggestion is for senior lawmakers who chair parliamentary committees to come up with an alternative Brexit plan.

"We're in the very, very final stages of the end game here," said Nick Boles, one of the Conservative lawmakers behind the plan who said he would vote for May's deal.

"What we need to do is find the solution and if the government can't find the solution, and we want the government to find the solution and we'll be voting for her solution — but if it can't then Parliament needs to," he told BBC Radio.


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