An anti-Brexit protester holds a placard outside the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

U.K. Cabinet Urges Tories to Back May's Deal or Risk No Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Cabinet members sought to persuade pro-Brexit Conservatives to back Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal on Tuesday, warning that leaving the European Union might not happen at all as it appeared unlikely she will win enough concessions to win them over.

“There is wind in the sails of people trying to stop Brexit,’’ Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the “Andrew Marr Show” on the BBC. “If you want to stop Brexit, you only need to do three things. Kill this deal, get an extension and then have a second referendum.’’

May’s so-called meaningful vote on Tuesday is intended to be held after the government had secured further concessions from the EU on the issue of the Irish backstop. Those talks have failed to make much progress. On Saturday pro-Brexit Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom said she was “absolutely astonished” EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier rehashed old ideas May has rejected and called his new proposal for the Irish border backstop a joke.

Meanwhile, officials in France and Germany on Sunday stepped up pressure for May -- and the government -- to pick a course rather than delay the exit.

May has promised that if lawmakers reject her divorce treaty, they will then get a vote on whether to take the country out of the European Union into legal limbo -- an option previous ballots have shown they will reject. Then there will be a vote on postponing the March 29 exit day.

‘Devastating’ Consequences

If Brexit is derailed, voters would hold the Conservatives responsible for failing to deliver on the outcome of the 2016 referendum, Hunt said. “They are going to say there was a party that promised to deliver Brexit, we put them into Number 10 and they failed. The consequences for us as a party would be devastating."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock also urged lawmakers to back May’s deal and said defeat is not inevitable. “Benjamin Franklin said of the U.S. Constitution, ‘I vote for this with all its faults’ and I think that’s the approach that we need to take on Tuesday,’’ Hancock told Sky News.

Defeat Looms

It appeared the Cabinet pleas were falling on deaf ears. The Sunday Times reported that May might lose by 230 votes on Tuesday, the same margin of defeat as in January for the deal in the House of Commons. On Sunday a former Brexit secretary, David Davis, called May’s deal “dreadful’’ but “rescuable’’ if significant changes are made to the backstop. His successor, Dominic Raab insisted that if May loses Tuesday she will have to instruct her party to vote for no-deal or risk splitting the Conservatives.

It’s more likely May will let party members vote as they choose as at least three members of her Cabinet and many junior ministers, worried by the effect on the economy and infrastructure, have threatened to quit if leaving without a deal becomes the government’s position. Asked how he would vote on no-deal Hunt declined to answer directly instead telling the BBC: “I don’t think we should be taking no-deal off the table.’’

Hunt is reported to want to lead the party and by hinting at backing no-deal he is burnishing his Brexit credentials. The Sunday Times also reported unnamed members of the Cabinet have urged May to step down by June in order to allow a more pro-Brexit Conservative to lead the next stage of negotiations. His colleague Matt Hancock, asked repeatedly by different broadcasters if he wants to lead the party laughed off the suggestion.

‘Zigzag Course’

In France, European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said Sunday it’s time for the U.K. to make its mind up.

“The British have said they want to leave the European Union without saying clearly where they want to go. We’re waiting for them,” she told France Inter radio. “They need to decide between a smooth separation, which is possible and which we’ve been working on for two years, and a brutal separation, which is not desirable but risks happening.”

Manfred Weber, the chairman of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, offered a similar message to the U.K.: “May should end her zigzag course,” Weber told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “British politicians, and I mean Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in particular, must finally put their own careers and party considerations behind them and look at the country’s interests again.”

Referendum Row

Outlining tactics for the Tuesday vote, the opposition Labour Party said it would not offer an amendment to force a second referendum. “There is a growing feeling that Tuesday should be a straight up-down vote on the deal,’’ the party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told Sky News. “Tuesday is about exposing the weakness of the prime minister.” He added that when Parliament subsequently debates a delay to Brexit he views “a delay of about three months is probably do-able; anything above that is difficult.”

Labour’s tactics drew the ire of the pro-referendum Liberal Democrats. "Labour’s apparent belated support for a People’s Vote needs to be put to the test very soon, the party’s Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said in an email. “If not Tuesday, when?’’

John McDonnell, the party’s Treasury spokesman, said Labour would back a “confirmatory vote’’ that’s being proposed by Labour rank-and-file lawmakers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson. Speaking to the BBC Radio’s “Pienaar’s Politics’’ show, Kyle said Sunday the pair would put down their amendment “when Parliament is in a mood to compromise.’’

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