Brexit Impasse Drags On; UK to Take Part in EU Elections

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

(CN) — With British politicians deadlocked over Brexit, voters in the United Kingdom will cast ballots in elections for the European Parliament at the end of May.

Britain’s participation in the elections is angering Conservative Party members and adds new urgency inside the Tory establishment to force British Prime Minister Theresa May to step down and leave No. 10 Downing Street. The government announced Tuesday that the UK by law needs to take part in the elections because it still remains in the EU. 

The UK government continues, nonetheless, to push forward in its preparations to leave the EU. Its latest move was to sign a deal Wednesday with Ireland to ensure that UK and Irish citizens can continue to live and work freely in both countries after Brexit. This arrangement has been in place since Ireland won independence from Britain almost a century ago.

The battle over Brexit has been bruising for May. She has faced no-confidence votes, ridicule, historic defeats and embarrassing headlines for months. Known for stoicism and stubbornness, she again displayed those traits on Wednesday when she rejected new calls from within her party to step down.

During a weekly session when members of the House of Commons can ask the prime minister questions, she even compared her precarious political situation to that of the Liverpool soccer team. On Tuesday night, Liverpool, which had lost 3-0 in a previous match to Barcelona, stormed back to beat Barcelona 4-0 and advance onto the European Champions League finals.  

“I actually think that when we look at the Liverpool win over Barcelona last night, what it shows is that when everyone says it’s all over, that your European opposition have got you beat, the clock is ticking down, it’s time to concede defeat, actually we can still secure success if everyone comes together,” May said.

For months, May has been pleading for members of her party and the opposition to support her Brexit deal.   

The Tories suffered massive losses in local elections on May 3 — their worst result in local elections in more than 20 years — and the party faces another drubbing in the upcoming elections to select members for the European Parliament.

After the May 3 debacle, the Conservative Party said it was ready to compromise to secure a Brexit deal with the Labour Party. But a breakthrough has yet to materialize. Talks were continuing Wednesday, but chances of a deal appeared slim.

On Tuesday, May met with Sir Graham Brady, the head of a powerful committee of Tory backbenchers in Parliament known as the 1922 Committee. They reportedly met to discuss her future. On Wednesday, British news media reported that May is expected to meet the 1922 Committee next week. This is a potentially significant development because the committee in the past has been known to decide the fate of prime ministers.   

Meanwhile, grassroots Tory members are threatening to force her to resign next month unless she sets out a timetable for her departure.

May is seen by many as having failed in her duty to deliver Brexit. She became prime minister after the UK voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU. Before the referendum she, like many other prominent Tories, favored remaining in the EU. Last autumn, she struck a Brexit deal with the EU, but the deal’s conditions have divided Parliament and she’s been unable to muster the votes needed to get her withdrawal agreement approved.

May has promised to step down as prime minister once she gets a Brexit deal done, but there’s no telling when or if that will happen. Many in Parliament, including a growing number of Tories, favor holding a second referendum to decide how and if the UK should leave the EU.

May now faces the prospect of seeing her Tories suffer another electoral fiasco in the European elections taking place May 23-26. Labour, too, is expected to suffer losses, as it did in the May 3 local elections, though its losses were far less severe than those sustained by the Tories.

May is coming under pressure from grassroots Tories too. They are threatening to hold an emergency meeting of association chairmen on June 15 and hold a confidence vote in May. Any vote by the grassroots members would not be binding.

The prime minister staved off a no-confidence vote by Tory House of Commons members in December. Under the party’s rules, only one confidence vote can be held within a year, but there has been talk of changing that rule.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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