Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, speaks during a news conference in London, U.K.. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

May Fights for Brexit Deal, Warns of Second Referendum Risk

(Bloomberg) -- Follow @Brexit on Twitter, join our Facebook group and sign up to our Brexit Bulletin.

Theresa May stepped up her battle to persuade her opponents in Parliament to back her Brexit deal, warning the U.K. will be in “uncharted territory” if they reject her plan in a key vote this month.

The prime minister on Sunday outlined a three-pronged campaign to win support for the agreement she’s struck with the European Union, proposing to give Parliament a bigger say over the future trade terms with the bloc, promising to say how the deal will work in Northern Ireland and seeking fresh assurances from the EU.

May Fights for Brexit Deal, Warns of Second Referendum Risk

With less than three months to go until Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU, there’s still no clarity on what will happen. May’s deal, brokered over 18 months of painstaking negotiations with the bloc’s envoys, looks almost certain to fall in parliament. That would put the country on track to tumble out of the bloc without a deal, putting jobs and the economy at risk as new tariffs and bureaucratic barriers strangle trade with the continent.

“If the deal is not voted on at this vote that’s coming up, then actually we’re going to be in uncharted territory,” May said on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “I don’t think anybody can say exactly what will happen in terms of the reaction that we’ll see in Parliament.”

If she fails to secure the support of the House of Commons in the vote this month, May suggested Brexit without a deal would be in the cards -- something analysis by the Treasury and the Bank of England suggests could be economically devastating. She even left open the dramatic option of a second referendum while insisting she doesn’t want one.

Aware of the risks, lawmakers are mounting a rear-guard attempt to thwart the chance of a no-deal Brexit. More than 200 members of both the Conservatives and opposition parties have signed a letter to May calling on her to rule the option out, and others are seeking to amend legislation to make it less likely that Britain will tumble out of the bloc.

Debate on the deal is set to begin on Wednesday, with the vote due in the week beginning Jan. 14.

Last month, May was forced to postpone the crucial vote in the Commons on whether to approve the terms of the divorce she’s negotiated over the past 18 months with the EU, acknowledging her plan would have been overwhelmingly defeated.

EU Talks

Since then, May has held talks with EU leaders in an attempt to win new assurances that she hopes will persuade skeptical politicians to back her deal. She said she’s “still working on” that but confirmed the delayed vote will go ahead as planned, around Jan. 15.

May’s deal is opposed by Brexiteer lawmakers in her own Conservative Party and from her allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority government.

They’re concerned about a fallback provision known as the Northern Ireland backstop, that would take effect if the U.K. and EU can’t strike a trade deal by the end of 2020. The main concerns are that it would permanently tie the U.K. to EU trade rules and erect barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

“This is not intended to be used in the first place, and if it is, it’s only temporary,” she said of the backstop. “Ensuring that we actually get the future relationship in place to replace the backstop if it’s used is actually a crucial element of this.”

Nevertheless, her deal still looks like it will struggle to pass in Parliament. One of her predecessors as Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, wrote in the Mail newspaper on Sunday that “this deal simply doesn’t work, and, far from securing Brexit, it shackles us to the EU.” And DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said on Sunday that “fundamental problems” remain in the deal, and “the backstop remains the poison which makes any vote for the Withdrawal Agreement so toxic.”

Multiple Votes

May refused six times on the Marr show to say whether she would seek multiple votes should Parliament reject the deal. Instead, she warned pro-Brexit lawmakers not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, lest “we end up with no Brexit at all.”

The premier also refused to say whether she would implement any decision by Parliament to hold a second plebiscite, saying that “the House of Commons obviously will come to its view on these things.”

“In my view there should not be a second referendum,” May said, warning that a new national vote would “divide our country” and require a delay to Brexit.

May has repeatedly said that the alternatives to her Brexit deal are “no deal” or “no Brexit.” But she declined to say which of those two alternatives she preferred, saying her deal was what she would choose.

Lawmakers, however, are seeking to flex their muscles. Some 209 of Parliament’s 650 lawmakers have signed the letter to May calling on her to rule out a no-deal departure, according to former Conservative cabinet minister, Caroline Spelman, who coordinated the letter with Jack Dromey of Labour.

“Crashing out of the EU without a deal will cause job losses and bring to an end the renaissance of manufacturing that we’ve seen in regions like mine in the West Midlands,” Spelman told BBC radio on Sunday. May has invited the signatories to a meeting in Downing Street on Tuesday to hear their concerns.

Lawmakers are also taking legislative action to try to prevent “no deal.” A cross-party group of rank-and-file Conservative and Labour members said on Sunday that they’re seeking to amend the government’s Finance Bill to ensure the “no deal” provisions in it can only be implemented if Parliament votes to allow it.

Their goal is to ensure that a “no deal” Brexit could only be delivered with the explicit consent of Parliament -- something that is unlikely, given that a majority of lawmakers oppose such an outcome. Conservatives including former ministers Nicky Morgan, Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles put their name to it.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.