Britain’s battle over Brexit resumes ahead of big vote

Britain’s battle over Brexit resumes Monday as parliament returns from its Christmas break to debate and — most likely — defeat Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular EU divorce deal.

The stakes could hardly be higher as the clock ticks down to the moment the world’s fifth-biggest economy splits from its main trading partner on March 29.

May and the other 27 EU leaders agreed on a draft agreement in November designed to keep the process as orderly and damage free as possible.

The accord took nearly two years to negotiate but has managed to upset just about everyone in British politics.

May survived her party’s resulting leadership no-confidence motion but was forced to abort a December vote on the pact in parliament after admitting it would lose by a “significant margin”.

There are few signs that much has changed since.

May returned empty handed from a subsequent EU summit in December which she had hoped could address the concerns of her disgruntled Northern Irish coalition partners.

Brexit-backing MPs in her Conservative party are still in open revolt while opposition Labour leaders are angling for new elections.

Vote to go ahead

The BBC reported Monday that the Brexit deal vote in parliament is now set for January 15.

Downing Street declined to confirm the date, but May insisted on Sunday that it would not be delayed again.

The formal debate kicks off in parliament on Wednesday.

May warned on Sunday the deal’s defeat would put Britain “in uncharted territory (in which) I don’t think anybody can say exactly what will happen”.

London has been swirling with rumours about how exactly May intends to avoid Britain crashing out of the bloc without any trade or other arrangements in place — something a large chunk of MPs oppose.

READ MORE: The short, sharp shock of no-deal Brexit

The prime minister received a cross-party letter Sunday from 209 lawmakers urging her “to agree a mechanism that would ensure a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could not take place”.

One tactic touted by advisers to force May’s deal through parliament would see the government re-introducing more or less the same version of the draft over and over again.

“If we have to have the vote 30 times, we will,” a Downing Street source told BuzzFeed News.

May refused to rule out the possibility of a second or third vote when pressed about it in the BBC interview Sunday.

May will meet her party’s MPs over private drinks on Monday and Wednesday in an attempt to sway waverers.

The arm twisting will be accompanied by a new government campaign designed to prepare Britons for the full impact of a disruptive no-deal scenario.

One test on Monday will see dozens of trucks taking over a disused airport earmarked as a future lorry park and then driven down a highway to the Channel port of Dover to assess how the infrastructure can cope.

Dover handles most of Britain’s trade with Europe and is expected to get quickly clogged up if no customs arrangements are made.

The pro-Brexit former foreign secretary Boris Johnson claimed in Monday’s Daily Telegraph that leaving without an agreement is actually “closest to what people voted for”.

Involving parliament

May outlined a formal plan of action Sunday that included the possibility of giving parliament a bigger say in a new round of trade talks with Brussels, due to start immediately after March 29.

“There’s a number of ways which we’re looking to see how we can involve parliament in a greater way in the future,” she said.

These negotiations will also try to resolve the prickly issue of keeping the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic open while preserving the integrity of the EU’s single market.

The temporary solution laid out in the draft withdrawal agreement does not suit Northern Ireland’s tiny Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that props up May’s government.

Nigel Dodds MP, its deputy leader, said Sunday the party had seen no tangible change in the proposal since December.

“The backstop remains the poison which makes any vote for the withdrawal agreement so toxic,” he added.

The DUP wants a binding guarantee from Brussels that Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of Britain will not be subjected to any types of checks.

May spent part of her holidays ringing up EU leaders about possible concessions. Brussels has made clear it will cede nothing before the vote.

The prime minister told the BBC she would continue to seek “further assurances from the European Union” about the border issue ahead of the vote.

© Agence France-Presse

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Dmitry Zaks
Dmitry Zaks
Politics and economics reporter with Agence France-Presse (AFP

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