Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, second right, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, left, arrive at a news conference in Strasbourg, France. (Photographer: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg)

May's Brexit Deal in Danger After Cox Warns of Backstop Risk

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a potentially catastrophic defeat for her Brexit strategy as members of Parliament line up to attack her revised deal, hours before they are due to vote on it.

If she loses the critical vote on Tuesday evening by a large margin, the risk is it will spell the end for the agreement May has spent the past two years painstakingly piecing together with the European Union. When she proposed the deal to the House of Commons in January, the premier was defeated by a record 230 votes.

May presented her re-written plan at a private meeting with Conservative members of Parliament on Tuesday morning in an attempt to persuade her euro-skeptic colleagues to back down and support the deal. But she quickly suffered a triple blow that seemed to crush her chances of winning the vote.

  • First, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox issued new legal advice on the terms of the deal, warning that the U.K. is still at risk of being trapped in the EU’s customs regime, under the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border.
  • The pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tories urged Conservatives not to support May’s new exit agreement, after a panel of legal experts examined it in detail overnight.
  • The Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority Tory government, also criticized her latest plan.

The pound fell as the chances of the agreement getting through Parliament tonight dropped.

“In the light of our own legal analysis and others we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today,” said Conservative Member of Parliament Bill Cash, who chaired the European Research Group’s panel of legal experts.

May's Brexit Deal in Danger After Cox Warns of Backstop Risk

May herself had almost lost her voice when she started to speak in the Commons on Tuesday. Battling through what seemed to be a sore throat, she urged members of Parliament to vote for her new deal because she’s secured the “legally binding changes” to the original plan that they wanted. “If this deal is not passed, then Brexit could be lost,” May said.

With just 17 days left until the U.K.’s scheduled departure date, talks have been stuck on the same issue that has blocked progress for the past year: the backup plan intended to ensure there’s never any need for customs checks at the land border between Ireland and the U.K.

Pro-Brexit politicians in May’s Tory party insist that the plan -- known as the backstop -- threatens to trap the U.K. inside the EU’s trade regime forever, because it would be impossible for Britain to leave. In his legal advice on the latest deal, Cox said the risk of this has been reduced, but not eliminated.

The Parliamentary math looks challenging for May. While a handful of Tory rebels from January indicated they’d now back her deal, she needs scores more. A total of 118 Conservatives opposed the deal in the 230-vote defeat in January. The Democratic Unionist Party have indicated the latest concessions aren’t enough to persuade them. Three of the rebellious Tories have now left the party and are also likely to oppose her this evening. That means that assuming the other parties vote as before, May needs to win over the remaining 115 Tories just to tie the vote.

If May loses the vote tonight, she’s pledged to give the House of Commons a vote on Wednesday on whether to accept or reject a no-deal Brexit. If lawmakers choose to reject it, they’ll then have the chance either on Wednesday or Thursday to vote to extend the Brexit negotiations beyond March 29.

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