British Parliament OKs Possible Brexit Delay

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London on Jan. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

(CN) – On another night of drama in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday evening fended off threats from opponents seeking to take control of the Brexit process away from her government.

After narrowly defeating a cross-party attempt at taking power away from the prime minister, the Commons easily approved May’s plan to seek a possible delay in Britain’s departure from the European Union, which is set to take place in 15 days on March 29.

Thursday’s votes tee up another showdown next week over May’s much-maligned divorce deal with the EU. Her government looks set to ask Parliament to vote again on her withdrawal agreement on Tuesday, according to British media.

Parliament has resoundingly rejected her deal twice before, most recently on Tuesday. It’s far from clear if her deal will be approved next week, but there are signs that hard-line Brexit backers, fearing Brexit could be lost altogether, may be ready to back her deal now.

For months, the Commons has been deadlocked over Brexit, and the impasse has reached a breaking point.

In 2016, Britons unexpectedly voted to leave the EU, setting off this long debate, commonly described as Britain’s most important decision since the end of World War II. Since the war’s end and the loss of its empire, Britain has worked closely with its European neighbors to keep the peace and build prosperity. Now, this relationship is at stake.

And it’s been anything but easy. Now, as the Brexit deadline looms, Britain is without a clear plan on how, when or if it will leave the EU. As a consequence, the prime minister’s government is tottering, political parties are fraying and the public is fed up and divided.

Parliament’s moderates in both the Conservative and Labour parties pushed to seize control of the chaotic Brexit process away from May, whom many have criticized as stubbornly ignoring the views of those outside her party.

By a very close margin, May managed to fend off those efforts. The Parliament voted 314-312 on Thursday to not let individual members begin introducing motions to find possible Brexit solutions. If those efforts had been successful, commentators said it could have upended May’s endgame strategies.

“This was crucial,” said Henry Newman, director of Open Europe, a think tank, discussing the proceedings on Sky News television. “This was a clear victory [for May]. Months and months later, she is still clinging on with her nails on the cliff. She has managed to maintain control.”

Over two years of talks, May and the EU drew up a comprehensive agreement on the terms of Britain’s divorce. This deal constructs a political, legal and economic framework upon which Britain and the EU can build a new relationship.

But that deal has left Parliament split. There are those who argue it keeps Britain too closely tied to the EU while others say the arrangement will hurt Britain by removing it too drastically from the EU and its markets, laws and people.

With Thursday’s votes, Parliament acknowledged the Brexit impasse makes it impossible to leave the EU on March 29 with or without a deal.

Under the parliamentary motion passed Thursday, May can now ask the EU to delay Britain’s departure date until June 30 in the event that her deal is approved or, if it is shot down again, for a much longer delay.

The EU’s heads of state must approve any delay. They are scheduled to meet next Thursday and are expected to decide then on any extension request.

If May is forced to ask for a long extension because her deal has been defeated, EU officials have suggested they could reject that request or, more likely, demand Britain hold new elections or allow Britons to vote in a second Brexit referendum.

For now, the chances the divorce deal will be approved seem to be growing slightly. Opponents of the deal within the Tory party, so-called hardcore Brexiteers, and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party appear more willing to support her deal.

“Her focus has been very much on threatening or trying to persuade the Brexiteers and the DUP to come on side,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, a think tank. Maddox said May seems to be saying: “’Well, if you don’t come on side, something worse from your point of view, a much softer Brexit or even no Brexit, might emerge.’”

But still, these parliamentarians make up roughly 85 members and May’s deal was defeated by 149 votes on Tuesday, so even if they support her deal it’s far from clear if it will pass.

For now, anyway, her government is hopeful.

“I still want to deliver the prime minister’s deal,” Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told Sky News at the end of the night’s voting.

Thursday was a relief for the Conservatives and May’s government after a chaotic night on Wednesday when the Tories were riven with discord and dissent during a series of votes about whether Britain should leave the EU without a deal. Parliament voted against leaving without a deal, which economists warn would cause debilitating economic shocks.

“There was a redoubling of resolve to get this deal through because it is in the national interest,” Hancock said about a morning cabinet meeting after Wednesday’s debacle for May.

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

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