London: UK Prime Minister Theresa May kept her deal with the European Union (EU) on life support after winning the backing of British politicians to seek a delay to Brexit just 48 hours after her plan looked dead and buried.
In a rare good day for the UK leader, the House of Commons on Thursday voted 412 to 202 to endorse her motion, buying her time to try and persuade doubters in her own Conservative Party to back her proposal or risk a lengthy postponement to Brexit they’re increasingly desperate to avoid.
With Britain tied in political knots over how to leave the EU, May is entering the 11th hour of brinkmanship. The country is due to end 46 years of membership in the bloc on 29 March, with the looming threat of economic chaos should no agreement be reached.
She’s now offering a simple choice for members of Parliament: back the deal they’ve already emphatically rejected twice and deliver Brexit delayed by up to three months, or risk being trapped in an extension that would last much longer with terms set by the bloc and still no end in sight to the domestic impasse.
“There are now two options left," Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC. “One is to vote for the deal, get it through and leave in an orderly way and the second is a long delay. I think that would be a disaster and I’m emphatically against that because it wouldn’t solve anything."
Thursday’s outcome was a welcome piece of good news for the British leader, after a bruising three days in which her political authority appeared to have drained away.
Even so, more than half of May’s own members of parliament voted against her motion, meaning she had to rely on opposition parties to get it through.
Seven of those were cabinet ministers, including Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay, who had urged the entire House of Commons to back the motion just an hour earlier. Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Chris Grayling and Gavin Williamson, all voted against May’s main motion too.
Thursday’s vote also sets up May for a difficult meeting next week with the remaining 27 EU leaders who themselves are divided over the proposed extension to Brexit.
But before that, May hopes the imminent threat of a lengthy extension will now soften some of the most avid Brexit campaigners whose support she needs. She plans to bring her deal back for another meaningful vote by 20 March, before the EU Council meeting.
Her attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox, has already updated his legal advice on the contentious provision for the land border with Ireland with a reference to the Vienna Convention on international treaties, the Telegraph reported. It’s an effort to win over Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and members of the Tory pro-Brexit European Research Group caucus.
Brexit-supporting Conservative MP Ben Bradley said on Thursday it was possible most ERG members could switch to supporting May’s deal next week. Others, though, were hardening their position against it. “There are probably about 15ish who will not vote for it regardless," he said.
In another tactical move, May also promised lawmakers that if her deal isn’t approved next week, she will give Parliament the chance to take over on 25 March.
That helped her narrowly defeat a cross-party motion that would have seen May lose control of the voting process. The proposal, from Labour politician Hilary Benn, was rejected by 314 votes to 312.
The 25 March vote will also pose another threat to the Brexit hard liners and might just work because MPs could use the opportunity to vote for a softer departure than May is proposing. That could potentially keep the UK in the EU’s single market or customs union, which many pro-leave campaigners would hate.
Parliament also overwhelmingly voted down a motion seeking a second referendum, though Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his team were still working on plans for another public vote that could be supported across party lines.
The EU has suggested it’s open to putting back the UK’s departure until late May, although there’s no unified position among European leaders and officials say they will need Britain to give a clear reason for delaying.
EU President Donald Tusk said earlier he would appeal to the 27 member states “to be open to a long extension if the U.K. finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it."
Bloomberg's Stuart Biggs, Kitty Donaldson, Alex Morales and Robert Hutton contributed to this story.