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Brexit battle looms as UK lawmakers attack May’s ‘Plan B’

Published:Tuesday | January 22, 2019 | 12:00 AM
A demonstrator waves her flags for the media outside Parliament in London on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her Brexit ‘Plan B ‘on Monday — and it looks a lot like Plan A. May launched a mission to resuscitate her rejected European Union divorce deal, setting out plans to get it approved by Parliament after securing changes from the EU to a contentious Irish -border measure.
Brexit banners lie on the ground near Parliament in London, Tuesday on January 22, 2019.

Prime Minister Theresa May is determined to get a tweaked version of her rejected European Union (EU) divorce deal through Parliament. British lawmakers have other ideas — lots of other ideas.

May’s Conservative government is headed for a showdown with Parliament next week, when lawmakers get to vote on the prime minister’s latest proposal and can try to amend it to send her in another direction.

Here’s how the battle is shaping up.After the divorce agreement struck between the UK government and the EU bloc was resoundingly rejected by Parliament last week, May held talks with government and opposition politicians and came up with a ‘Plan B’ — one that looked remarkably similar to her Plan A.

May told the House of Commons on Monday that she was aiming to win lawmakers’ backing for her deal after securing changes from the EU to a contentious Irish border measure.

The bloc insists that it won’t renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. And opposition lawmakers say the scale of May’s defeat last week — 432 votes to 202 — shows she must radically alter her deal if it is to have any hope of approval.

But Parliament is deeply divided about what changes to make. Pro-Brexit lawmakers want to remove the Irish ‘backstop’, an insurance policy that would constrain British trade policy in order to ensure that there are no customs checks between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. Pro-EU legislators want May to lift her insistence that Brexit means quitting the EU’s single market and customs union.

Amid the impasse, one thing is in short supply: time.

Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, with or without a divorce deal. The political impasse over Brexit is fuelling concerns that the country may crash out of the bloc without an agreement in place to cushion the shock. That could see tariffs imposed on goods moving between Britain and the EU, sparking logjams at ports and shortages of essential supplies.

May says the only way to avert a no-deal Brexit is to back her deal, but lawmakers are trying to pause the clock.

Groups of ‘soft Brexit’-backing lawmakers, who want to keep close economic ties to the EU, are planning to use amendments during a January 29 debate on May’s plan to try to rule out a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, delay Britain’s departure, and put alternative plans on the table.

Half a dozen amendments had been filed by Tuesday, most aiming to allow time for Parliament to hammer out alternatives to May’s rejected deal. One of the most prominent, with support from both opposition and Conservative lawmakers, would give May until February 26 to pass a deal, or see Brexit delayed as Parliament took charge.

It will be up to Commons Speaker John Bercow to decide which amendments are put to a vote. Any that are approved would not be legally binding, but as an expression of the will of Parliament would be hard for the government to ignore.

A growing group of campaigners argues that Brexit has become so divisive, complicated and gridlocked that politicians can’t solve it, and the only answer is to ask voters again whether they want to leave the EU.

May is strongly opposed to the idea. She said Monday that a new referendum, less than three years after voters opted for Brexit, would “damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy”.

But others argue that it’s the only way to break the logjam.

“Two and a half years ago, we voted on an abstract idea, that’s the truth,” pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve said Tuesday.

Offer alternative

He said that now that the details of Brexit were clearer, the best course was to “go back and ask the public whether they really want what the prime minister has negotiated and offer them the alternative, remain, instead.”

May says she plans to go back to Brussels after January 29 to seek changes to the deal from EU leaders — ideally after getting Parliament to pass a vote calling for a time limit on the border backstop. The bloc insists that the legally binding, 585-page withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened, and says the backstop is essential to keeping the Irish border open.

EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Tuesday that in “a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it’s pretty obvious, you will have a hard border.”

The EU is more flexible about a non-binding political declaration laying out the framework of future relations between Britain and the bloc. But EU leaders say they won’t consider any changes until Britain figures out what kind of Brexit it wants.

“I have a terrible sense of deja vu,” Schinas said, before using the words of the Spice Girls to send a message to British politicians.

“We expect the UK to tell us what they want, what they really, really want,” he said.