Prime Minister Theresa May urged MPs on Monday to take a “second look” at her deal to leave the European Union, in a last-ditch effort to win over a parliament that looks set to reject the agreement.
The fate of the UK’s – and by extension, Gibraltar’s – March 29 exit from the EU is in the balance today, when the House of Commons is widely expected to vote against Mrs May’s deal, opening up outcomes ranging from a disorderly divorce to reversing Brexit.
In the deepest crisis in British politics for at least half a century, Mrs May and EU leaders exchanged letters giving assurances on her withdrawal agreement, though there was little sign of a change of heart among rebel MPs.
Mrs May used a speech at a china factory in the leave-supporting city of Stoke-on-Trent in central England to say that MPs blocking Brexit altogether was now a more likely outcome than Britain leaving without a deal.
She then returned to parliament, where she asked MPs to give her deal a chance, referring to the assurances she secured from Brussels and warning parliament it risked the break-up of the UK if it voted against the agreement.
“So I say to members on all sides of this House (of Commons) – whatever you may have previously concluded – over these next 24 hours, give this deal a second look,” she said.
“No it is not perfect. And yes it is a compromise,” she said, telling them to think about how any decision will be judged in history books.
“I say we should deliver for the British people and get on with building a brighter future for our country by backing this deal tomorrow.”
Mrs May has refused to budge over her deal despite criticism from all quarters.
The agreement, which envisages close economic ties with the EU, has united the opposing sides of the debate – pro-EU MPs who see it as the worst of all worlds, and Brexit supporters who say it will make Britain a vassal state.
Mrs May warned lawmakers on Sunday that failing to deliver Brexit would be “catastrophic” for democracy, and her ministers said thwarting the outcome of the 2016 referendum could lead to a rise in far-right populism.
As the world’s biggest trading bloc tried to brace for an unpredictable ride, Spain said the EU could agree to extend the deadline for Brexit, but not beyond elections for the European Parliament due in May.
“A hard Brexit would be a catastrophe for everyone,” Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said during a conference in Madrid, echoing Mrs May’s language.
“It is possible that the timeframe may be extended,” said Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, without giving details about how this might happen.
“The real deadline is the European election, because it has been planned without British representation.”
LETTER FROM EU
As part of the effort to get the deal approved by the British parliament, the EU and Mrs May set out some assurances in a choreographed exchange of letters on Monday.
The EU told Mrs May that it stood by commitments to find ways to avoid triggering the “Irish backstop” in their Brexit deal and that this pledge had legal weight.
In a joint reply to questions from Mrs May, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU stood by its commitment to try and reach a post-Brexit trade deal by the end of next year in order to avoid using the unpopular backstop.
While stressing that nothing in their letter could be seen as changing or being inconsistent with the draft treaty agreed with Mrs May last month, they said a commitment to a speedy trade deal made by EU leaders had “legal value” which committed the Union “in the most solemn manner”.
However, even if the target date were not met, they wrote, Britain would have the option to extend a status-quo transition period to avoid triggering the backstop, which is meant to avoid a hard customs border for Northern Ireland.
“If the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would only apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided,” they said.
The UK’s Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, issued advice that EU assurances on the backstop “would have legal force in international law”, and said the current deal “now represents the only politically practicable and available means of securing our exit from the EU”.
But Mrs May’s hopes that the letter would win over enough MPs to rescue her Withdrawal Agreement looked set to be dashed, as the Democratic Unionist Party – which props up her minority administration – dismissed it as “meaningless”.
“Rather than reassure us, the Tusk and Juncker letter bolsters our concerns,” said DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who called on the PM to demand changes to the agreement itself.
With no-deal Brexit the default option if Mrs May’s deal is defeated, some MPs are planning to pull control of Brexit from the government.
Though Mrs May is weakened, the executive has significant powers, especially during times of crisis, so it was unclear how parliament would be able to take control of Brexit.
If Mrs May’s deal is defeated and the government is unable to have any amended version passed in the next three weeks, one suggestion is for senior MPs who chair parliamentary committees to come up with an alternative Brexit plan.
“We’re in the very, very final stages of the end-game here,” said Nick Boles, one of the Conservative MPs behind the plan, who said he would vote for Mrs May’s deal.
“What we need to do is find the solution, and if the government can’t find the solution – and we want the government to find the solution, and we’ll be voting for her solution – but if it can’t, then parliament needs to,” he told BBC radio.