London (AFP) – British Prime Minister Theresa May rounded up her ministers on Friday to plot a renewed bid to convince MPs to back the EU divorce deal, after securing a delay to Brexit.
The premier faces daunting odds to persuade British lawmakers to support a plan they have already overwhelmingly rejected twice, by a new April 12 deadline agreed with European Union leaders.
If May succeeds, Britain — which was staring at a cliff-edge deadline of March 29 for leaving the EU — will depart on May 22 under the terms of a withdrawal agreement struck with Brussels last year.
But if MPs defeat the accord again next week, as appears likely, then Britain must outline a new plan or face a no-deal Brexit as early as April 12, unless London decides to request another extension.
A further extension would require Britain to take part in European Parliament elections in May, despite having voted to leave the bloc three years ago.
“Until April 12, anything is possible,” EU Council President Donald Tusk told reporters on Friday at the close of the EU summit in Brussels.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the bloc’s leaders would need another summit with May to discuss how to proceed if MPs reject the agreement again.
That prospect increased on Friday after Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s government in parliament, accused the prime minister of “failure” at the EU summit.
“The government has been far too willing to capitulate,” Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader in the British parliament, said in a statement, adding that “nothing has changed as far as the withdrawal agreement is concerned”.
The pound rose on news of the delay but is likely to remain volatile amid uncertainty over what path Britain will now take.
Stocks in London ended the day 2.0 percent lower.
– ‘National humiliation’ –
Parliament has been deadlocked for months over Brexit, with lawmakers unable to decide how to implement the 2016 referendum vote to leave, reflecting bitter divisions in the country as a whole.
Tusk said four options were possible: a deal, a long extension “if the UK decided to rethink its strategy”, a no-deal exit or revoking Article 50 — the formal procedure for member states to leave the EU.
He said April 12 is now a “key date” — because after that Britain could no longer register candidates for the European Parliament elections.
“If it has not decided to do so by then, the option of a long extension will automatically become impossible,” Tusk said.
The British government declined Friday to set a date for a third parliamentary vote on the divorce deal but said it hoped it would happen next week.
May faces an immediate hurdle in the form of John Bercow, the speaker of parliament’s lower House of Commons.
He has said the agreement being voted on has to be on different terms from the ones MPs have already rejected.
There was also heightened speculation that May is increasingly open to a series of so-called “indicative votes” that could reveal the level of parliamentary support for other options.
Junior Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng on Friday told MPs it “would not be unreasonable” to have a series of votes if the deal is rejected “to find out what the house actually supported”.
But the prospect of such votes — potentially on everything from stopping Brexit altogether to remaining in a customs union with the EU — prompted criticism from Brexit hardliners.
“National humiliation is imminent through these ‘indicative votes’,” said Conservative MP Steve Baker, who favours leaving without a deal.
– ‘Disgusted’ –
Several lawmakers have already signalled their continuing opposition to May’s plan.
Conservative MP Peter Bone told the BBC: “If a deal is a bad deal, it’s a bad deal, and I’m not going to vote for it.”
Nigel Farage, one of the driving forces behind the Brexit campaign, said he was “disgusted” by the delay.
Conservative-leaning newspapers also reported growing opposition to May remaining in power over her handling of Brexit.
As uncertainty continues to reign, more than 3.5 million people have signed an online petition calling on the government to cancel Brexit.