Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, leaves number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

May Calls for EU to Renegotiate Brexit in Search for a Deal

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May called on Parliament to send a unified message to Brussels to rip open the Brexit agreement or watch chaos unfold as the U.K. splits away from the bloc without a deal.

The British prime minister made a bold pitch to win votes from her own Conservative Party, by siding with a hardline plan to scrap the most contentious part of the divorce accord she spent 18 months negotiating: the backstop plan for the Irish border.

May Calls for EU to Renegotiate Brexit in Search for a Deal

She also went further in her efforts to secure the backing of Tories, partially endorsing a compromise proposal the warring factions of the party had worked up between them.

Her intervention was designed to ensure that the House of Commons takes a decisive step later on Tuesday and votes to say exactly what it wants to change in the Brexit deal.

With just eight weeks left before the U.K. exits the bloc -- and the existing agreement in tatters -- May appealed to the Commons to give her some solid demands to put to Brussels. But it could go either way: by the end of Tuesday, May could have won a new mandate for negotiating with the EU, or she could have lost control of the Brexit process to Parliament.

‘Battling for Britain’

“I will never stop battling for Britain, but the odds of success become much longer if this House ties one hand behind my back,” the premier told Parliament. “I call on this House to give me the mandate I need to deliver a deal this House can support.”

Unless May and the EU can agree on a plan -- and get it through the British and European parliaments -- the U.K. will tumble out of the bloc on March 29 without a deal, risking a recession in Britain and a hit to house prices and the pound. But their task remains formidable, with European officials unlikely to agree to new British demands.

May spoke to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker before she addressed Parliament. A person familiar with the conversation said Juncker warned May that the bloc will not re-negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement -- even if the Commons calls for it in a vote.

But May thinks the EU will have to reopen the exit accord if the bloc wants to avoid the disruption of a no-deal split.

Brussels Trip

May plans to go to Brussels this week, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person said that even if the Brady amendment doesn’t pass, the government hopes a show of support from lawmakers will show the EU that the backstop is the problem with the deal.
“If they wish us to leave with a deal, there is going to have to be a change” to the existing accord, her spokesman, James Slack, told reporters.

On Tuesday evening, the Commons will vote on a series of plans for what should happen next in the U.K.’s journey out of the EU. There are two key amendments among the seven up for debate.

First, Conservative politician Graham Brady’s proposal to remove the Irish border backstop and replace it with alternative arrangements. May is backing this, even though it effectively tears up her own deal.

EU Resistance

But as Juncker told May, the Brady plan seems to be doomed even if it wins support in the Commons. A European official said the EU’s 27 governments and the European Commission have already coordinated a draft response to the Brady amendment and will say that it won’t fly.

The second option is one May does not welcome, even though many business leaders do: it would give Parliament the power to force May to delay Brexit by extending the deadline for negotiating a deal beyond March 29.

This move -- known as the Cooper-Boles amendment -- has won the backing of the official Labour opposition, giving it a fighting chance of success, if enough of May’s Tories rebel.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.