A Union Flag, also known as a Union Jack, left, and a U.S. flag, sit in front of a television screen displaying a news channel showing U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May making her Brexit speech (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

May Fighting to Keep Brexit Proposal Alive as Opposition Mounts

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May enters another week battling to keep her Brexit plan alive.

The main fight now is about whether the guarantees the prime minister is offering to avoid checks at the border with Ireland after Britain leaves the European Union in March will bind the U.K. to the bloc’s rules indefinitely. 

Opposition from all sides is mounting, casting doubt over whether May can get her plans through Parliament, where her Conservative Party is divided and lacks a majority.

Pro-EU lawmakers say the plan represents the worst of all worlds, a point underscored on Friday when Jo Johnson resigned as transport minister, calling the deal being offered a choice between "vassalage and chaos" and demanding a second referendum. On the other side, Brexit backers want a clean break with the EU so Britain can strike new trade deals. Northern Irish lawmakers fear the province will end up being treated differently to Britain.

In a joint opinion piece for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Tory Brexiteer Steve Baker and Sammy Wilson, who speaks on Brexit for the Democratic Unionists -- the Northern Irish party that props up the Conservatives in Parliament -- vowed to reject the deal, even if May persuades the Cabinet to approve it.

“We do not wish to see ‘no deal’ with our EU partners. We share the prime minister’s ambition for an EU free-trade agreement, but not at any price and certainly not at the price of our Union,” the pair wrote. “If the government makes the historic mistake of prioritizing placating the EU over establishing an independent and whole U.K., then regrettably we must vote against the deal.”

Review Clause

One area of contention centers on efforts to introduce a review clause into the divorce treaty that would allow the U.K. to leave any customs arrangement. The mechanism would likely involve both sides, rather than grant Britain unilateral escape powers. But one Brexit backer warned Sunday that a backstop that left Britain trapped against its will would be unsellable to Parliament.

“It cannot be a decision that can be overturned by the European Union; it must be capable for the United Kingdom to decide to leave that customs arrangement and it cannot be something the European Union can hold us to,” Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, told BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday.

In a surprise concession, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Tory MPs, made what he called a proposal to break the impasse with the EU. Under “No Deal Plus,” Britain would offer to pay 20 billion pounds ($26 billion) -- half the divorce bill currently envisaged -- to make its departure “as amicable as possible” and leave following a 21-month transition period.

“It would cost us money but it would finally dispel the ‘crash out’ Project Fear nightmare scenarios,” he wrote in the Mail on Sunday.

The resignation of Johnson last week came four months after his more famous brother, arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson, quit as foreign secretary over the direction of Brexit. Four more pro-EU ministers are “on the brink” of resignation, the Sunday Times reported, without identifying anyone.

Navigating Brexit is scarcely less difficult for the opposition Labour Party, as many of its members of Parliament represent districts that voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.

Labour has said it wants a general election rather than a second Brexit referendum if May’s plan is rejected but that all options remain on the table. Writing in the Sunday Times, Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer warned May cannot count on a bailout from Labour, saying there is no duty on lawmakers to surrender to a bad deal for fear crashing out of the bloc in March.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.