Theresa May, U.K. prime minister. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

May Says Brexit Might Never Happen If Parliament Rejects Her Deal

(Bloomberg) --

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May warned that Brexit could be delayed, diluted, or even canceled if members of Parliament reject her deal in a crunch vote next week.

The prime minister urged euro-skeptics in her own Conservative Party to compromise for the sake of delivering on the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum by backing the divorce agreement she’s brokered with the bloc in a vote on March 12.

If these Tories refuse to back down because they want a cleaner break with the EU than her deal allows, they risk achieving the opposite -- an even softer, Norway-style accord, she said.

“Back it and the U.K. will leave the European Union. Reject it and no one knows what will happen,” May told an audience in Grimsby, northeast England, on Friday. “We may not leave the EU for many months. We may leave without the protections that the deal provides. We may never leave at all.”

Second Vote

May issued her warning just four days before Parliament votes for a second time on whether to accept or reject the separation agreement she’s spent two years negotiating with the EU. In January, the Commons threw out the deal, defeating May by a record 230-vote majority.

In the two months since, the premier has been trying to extract changes to the deal to address MPs’ concerns that the so-called Irish border backstop will indefinitely lock Britain into EU trade rules. She faces stubborn opposition from a hard core of pro-Brexit Conservatives who dislike her deal because it keeps Britain tied too closely to the bloc.

May raised the specter of an even softer Brexit. If her deal falls, Parliament would then vote on whether to leave without an agreement and is almost certain to reject that option. Then there would be another vote on delaying the divorce, penciled in for Thursday March 14.

Such a delay would lead to a fresh round of horse-trading with the EU. “That might lead to a form of Brexit that does not match up to what people voted for,” May said.

The result could be the U.K. staying in the bloc’s single market and customs union permanently, an option known as Norway Plus, she suggested.

Norway Plus

“It could mean no end to free movement, no ability to strike our own trade deals, no end to the big annual payments, no taking back control -- which is what the British people voted for,” she told her audience.

The talks with the EU have at times been “difficult and robust,” May said on Friday. She appealed to EU leaders to act now to prevent more uncertainty and the threat of an economically damaging split with no new trade terms in place.

“Now is the moment for us to act,” May said. “It needs just one more push to address the final specific concerns of our Parliament.”

European officials have been planning to wait until the last moment before the U.K. is due to exit the bloc on March 29 before making any concession -- but May said that would be too late.

“So let’s not hold back. Let’s do what is necessary for MPs to back the deal on Tuesday,” May said. “Because if MPs reject the deal, nothing is certain. It would be at a moment of crisis.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.