Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, exits 10 Downing Street. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

May Weighs Delay to Brexit Vote to Break Deadlock

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May is said to be weighing a plan to postpone the crunch vote on her Brexit deal in an attempt to avoid a landslide defeat that would risk a major U.K. political crisis. 

The prime minister was urged by allies in her Conservative Party to delay the parliamentary vote on the U.K.’s divorce agreement with the European Union amid predictions she would lose it badly. Defeat would put the U.K. on course to crash out of the EU in March without a deal, and could trigger a fresh attempt to topple May and even a general election.

According to a person familiar with the matter, May met with her top ministers in London on Thursday to discuss options. These included:

  • Asking the EU for a better deal by reopening talks in Brussels.
  • Offering lawmakers a bigger say over the most contentious clauses in the text, on the Irish border.
  • Withdrawing from the key vote to ratify the deal in Parliament on Tuesday and aiming to reschedule it for later date. 

Asked if he thought the Dec. 11 vote should be delayed, Cabinet minister Matt Hancock said: “No. Downing Street have been very clear that they’re not going to delay the vote. I think we should win the vote,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Friday. “Don’t pre-judge it.”

The health secretary said May’s deal would be best for the country as a whole as “there isn’t a majority for any other particular option.”

With so much at stake, May is looking for a way to avoid a heavy defeat and keep her Brexit deal alive. But the task is daunting, since so many Conservatives are lining up to oppose her plan.

May has been battling her own party on Brexit ever since she lost her majority in the snap election of June 2017 and has somehow survived, with her plans inching forward.

A key tactic for May’s team has been to use time to her advantage. When an apparently intractable dispute seems about to blow up her government, May has pressed the pause button, buying both sides in the conflict the time to calm down. While this has worked in the past, the problem she faces is that time has almost run out.

The U.K. will leave the EU on March 29 even if no deal is ratified by then. And if May is aiming to go back to Brussels to ask for changes to the divorce agreement, the summit next week -- two days after the House of Commons votes -- would be the ideal time to do it.

Graham Brady, the influential chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory lawmakers, publicly suggested May should postpone Tuesday’s vote to give her time to strike a compromise with pro-Brexit lawmakers over a mechanism for ending the so-called Northern Ireland backstop.

The pound was down 0.2 percent at $1.2755 as of 8:45 a.m. London time.

May has been meeting with Tory rebels and ministers all week in an attempt to find a way through this particular obstacle of the Brexit puzzle, which has divided her party and the country.

“I’m sure the House of Commons would be happy to give her a few more days,” Brady said in an interview with Sky News. It came after May met with senior MPs on Thursday to discuss the growing prospect of defeat in Parliament. “I don’t think there’s any point in plowing ahead and losing the vote heavily.”

During the meeting, which was called by May, Chief Whip Julian Smith said the government is heading for a defeat, while Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, became frustrated and asked “What do you want to do, prime minister?” according to a report in the Daily Telegraph.

Many lawmakers who are opposed to the deal say it could lock the U.K. into the backstop indefinitely, in essence binding Britain to the EU customs union. Even though May says the backstop is unlikely to be used, the current agreement provides no legal assurances to prevent such a scenario from happening.

Britain and the EU agreed the backstop in order to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The backstop will kick in if the two sides don’t find a lasting solution to avoiding checks at the border.

“It puts us in a formidably bad negotiating position for the future,” former Brexit Secretary David Davis said on Thursday. Parliament has been debating on the deal for three days.

May Weighs Delay to Brexit Vote to Break Deadlock

May said she’s in talks to offer Parliament a say over whether to extend the Brexit transition period beyond Dec. 2020 if needed, rather than enter into the backstop arrangement. But there are also other ideas that could be more attractive to Brexit backers, according to a government official, who declined to be named.

It’s also possible that an amendment to Tuesday’s bill proposed by one of her fiercest critics ends up sparing her from a major blow. A wrecking amendment to the deal drafted by Labour lawmaker Hilary Benn and signed by Labour and Conservative members calls for May’s agreement to be ripped up, and for the government to rule out a no-deal Brexit. If it passes, there would be no point in the government continuing to push its motion.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.