LONDON: Parliament’s vote on British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal will go ahead on December 11, her office said on Thursday, despite a newspaper report that ministers had sought a delay to prevent a defeat so big it might bring down the government.
May has repeatedly said if lawmakers reject her deal with Brussels, which would see Britain exit the EU on March 29 with continued close ties, the only alternatives are leaving without a deal or reversing Brexit.
The British parliament is mid-way through a five-day debate on the Brexit deal, ahead of the vote which will define Britain’s departure from the EU and could determine May’s future as leader. She looks set to lose that vote.
The Times newspaper reported that senior ministers were urging May to delay it for fear of a rout.
“The vote will take place on Tuesday as planned,” May’s spokeswoman said. The House of Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, also told parliament the vote would go ahead on December 11.
The day before the vote, on December 10, the EU’s top court will deliver a judgment on whether Britain can unilaterally halt Brexit.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier said on Thursday the deal was the best Britain will get, while British finance minister Philip Hammond said it was “simply a delusion” to think the agreement could be renegotiated if parliament rejects it.
May used an interview on BBC radio to press on with her bid to persuade lawmakers to back her deal.
“There are three options: one is to leave the European Union with a deal … the other two are that we leave without a deal or that we have no Brexit at all,” she said.
In one potential concession, May said she recognised that there were concerns among lawmakers about the so-called Northern Irish backstop and she was looking at whether parliament could be given a greater role in deciding whether to trigger it.
“I am talking to colleagues about how we can look at parliament having a role in going into that and, if you like, coming out of that,” she said.
Worries about the backstop are a driver of opposition to the deal among both May’s own Conservative lawmakers and the Northern Irish democratic unionist party (DUP) which props up her minority government.
Supporters of a clean break with the EU say the backstop, intended to ensure no hard border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, could leave Britain forced to accept EU regulations indefinitely, or Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Legal advice the government was forced to publish on Wednesday warned there was a risk Britain could get stuck in “protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations” to reach a deal to supersede the backstop.
May’s critics, including both supporters and opponents of Brexit, say that means Britain could be subject to EU laws long after it has given up any influence over determining them.
Former foreign minister and leading Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson said May was wrong to say parliament might be able to choose whether to trigger the backstop or extend a transition period, under which more EU membership terms would apply
“This is simply not possible. Under her deal the EU has the legal right to stop us extending the transition and make us enter the backstop – whatever the PM or parliament says,” he said on Twitter.
On Wednesday, May’s parliamentary enforcer, or chief whip, Julian Smith, spent an hour meeting pro-Brexit Conservative and DUP lawmakers, listening to their concerns about the deal. But lawmakers who attended the meeting said he did not offer a solution to persuade them to back it.
“This was not about doing deals, it was about listening,” said one leading pro-Brexit lawmaker. Another said it was: “Too little, too late.”
During the first two days of debate, at least 15 of May’s own lawmakers explicitly said they intend to vote against the deal, and British media have speculated that as many as 100 could ultimately rebel. May will either need to win them back or persuade a substantial number of opposition lawmakers to support the deal, which appears unlikely.