Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, delivers a speech, after winning a confidence vote in Parliament, outside number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

May Wins Confidence Vote and Opens Cross-Party Brexit Talks

(Bloomberg) --

U.K. leader Theresa May survived an attempt to oust her government and immediately opened talks with rival political parties in an attempt to break the Brexit deadlock, as time runs out to reach a deal.

The prime minister fought off the threat of a national election and won the right to continue running the country when the House of Commons voted 325 to 306 against a motion of “no confidence” in her administration. The pound edged higher.

May Wins Confidence Vote and Opens Cross-Party Brexit Talks

May invited other party leaders, who back keeping much closer ties to the European Union, for talks tonight to discuss how to forge a compromise Brexit plan that Parliament can support.

“The government approaches these meetings in a constructive spirit, and I urge others to do the same,” May told lawmakers. “We must find solutions that are negotiable and command sufficient support in this House.”

But Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour party, said May must rule out a no-deal Brexit as a precondition for those discussions. After a spokesman for the prime minister later told reporters she was not doing so, Corbyn’s camp said no deal was being used as “blackmail.” The Labour leader doesn’t plan to meet May on Wednesday night.

A spokesman for Corbyn also said Labour would not rule out further no-confidence votes.

May Wins Confidence Vote and Opens Cross-Party Brexit Talks

The slim margin of May’s victory was not a surprise as she has no overall majority in the Commons and relies on support from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her government.

While the result brings short-term respite for May, the U.K. remains locked in a political crisis over its divorce from the European Union, with no deal in sight and just 10 weeks until the country is due to exit the bloc.

In a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, May’s blueprint for exiting the EU was resoundingly rejected by 230 votes -- the worst parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British history. While pro-Brexit hardliners backed her in the confidence vote, they will be quick to denounce any attempts she makes to find a compromise that maintains close ties to the bloc. The support of her Northern Irish allies is also conditional on a radical overhaul of her deal.

If Parliament fails to approve a Brexit deal, the U.K. will fall out of the EU on March 29 without any new agreement in place. British authorities warn that this could trigger a recession, with the pound falling as much as 25 percent and house prices taking as much as a 30 percent hit.

Brexit Delay

British and EU officials are increasingly convinced the U.K. will need to delay Brexit day, though May has so far refused publicly to consider that option.

“We are living through a historic moment in our nation’s history,” May said as she asked the Commons to back her government on Wednesday. “Following a referendum that divided our nation in half, we dearly need to bring our country back together.”

Corbyn proposed the no-confidence vote after May’s Brexit deal suffered the biggest parliamentary defeat for at least 100 years. He said she’s now running a “zombie government.”

The Labour leader said the country needed a fresh election to install a Labour government that would bring “fresh ideas” for tackling low pay rates for workers, a crumbling healthcare service, and state-funded education. “A general election would give new impetus to negotiations, with a new prime minister,” he said.

Quagmire

Despite deep divisions in May’s Conservative party over Brexit, her colleagues -- and their DUP partners --- rallied to her defense, voting to keep the government in power. While they can’t agree on the best way to take the U.K. out of the EU, Conservative and DUP politicians are united in their determination to stop Corbyn forming a government.

The prime minister’s focus now turns to trying to find a way through the Brexit quagmire. After the deal she’s spend almost two years negotiating with the EU was resoundingly rejected, May will now open talks with rival parties in the hope of finding a blueprint that Parliament can agree to support.

The prime minister is approaching those discussions with a set of principles on Brexit, a U.K. official told reporters later, adding she’d never used the term “red lines” -- a reference to the accusation leveled at her by opposition lawmakers she’d boxed herself in talks with Brussels.

Time is running short. May must return to Parliament to set out her Plan B by Monday. According to a person familiar with the matter, the premier is also urgently lining up calls with EU leaders to discuss the next steps.

It’s unclear how much help the EU can be. The bloc is willing to extend the Article 50 negotiating period beyond the summer to find a deal if necessary, according to diplomats. But on Wednesday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said there’s no way to remove the need for the most contentious part of the agreement -- the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.