World News

May Expected to Postpone Brexit Vote in Parliament

Posted December 10, 2018 8:55 a.m. EST

LONDON — Facing the prospect of a humiliating defeat, Prime Minister Theresa May was expected to announce Monday plans to postpone a parliamentary vote on her proposal for Britain’s departure from the European Union, throwing the process into disarray and highlighting her tenuous hold on power.

May planned to make an unscheduled address to Parliament on Monday afternoon, after a round of calls to Cabinet ministers. Several British news organizations, citing unidentified sources, reported that she would delay the vote after concluding that she was likely to fail a parliamentary test on which she had staked her reputation.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, effectively confirmed the postponement in a statement saying that the prime minister’s “Brexit deal is so disastrous” that the government “has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the eleventh hour.”

Parliament had been scheduled to vote Tuesday on the agreement that May reached with the bloc for Britain’s withdrawal, or Brexit, but weeks of bitter criticism and days of parliamentary debate had left little doubt that the plan would be rejected by lawmakers.

EU officials have insisted that the deal, reached last month after lengthy negotiations, represents their final offer and that the only alternative is for Britain to leave the bloc on March 29 without an agreement in place — an abrupt and chaotic prospect that officials on both sides of the Channel predict would be economically damaging.

What May’s government would do after a parliamentary defeat is uncertain. Lawmakers have floated an array of possibilities, including another parliamentary vote in a few days; an attempt within her own Conservative Party to topple her; a snap general election; and a second popular referendum on whether to leave the bloc.

The postponement of Parliament’s vote came after May spoke with members of her Cabinet and briefed them on her weekend discussions with other European leaders. The prime minister is scheduled to attend a summit meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

It also came hours after the EU’s highest court ruled that Britain could legally cancel its decision to leave the bloc and remain under its current terms, throwing a lifeline to those who still hope to reverse the withdrawal.

The decision, from the European Court of Justice, confirmed a recommendation last week by one of the court’s senior legal advisers.

Dozens of Conservative lawmakers who want a more complete break with Europe were expected to join most opposition lawmakers in voting against May’s deal, though how many members of her party would abandon her was uncertain.

Steve Baker, a member of the European Research Group, an alliance of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, said that postponing the vote would amount to “essentially a defeat” of May’s agreement with the European Union.

The terms of the agreement “were so bad that they didn’t dare put it to Parliament for a vote,” he said on Twitter. “This isn’t the mark of a stable government or a strong plan.”

The Conservatives hold 315 seats, just shy of a majority in the 650-seat Parliament. May governs with the cooperation of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which holds 10 seats, and vehemently opposes the Brexit deal.

Analysts had said that the prime minister expected to lose the initial vote but hoped the margin would not be embarrassingly large. Her plan then, they said, was to win a few concessions from Brussels and return to Parliament for a second vote.

May started the two-year exit process, under Article 50 of the EU’s treaty, in March 2017, and Britain is scheduled to leave March 29. She has vowed to carry out the will of voters, who narrowly approved withdrawal from the union in a 2016 referendum.

But the European Court ruled that Britain could withdraw its Article 50 submission before that date, as long as it did so in accordance with the country’s democratic and constitutional arrangements, and communicated the decision in writing. The reversal would not require the approval of the 27 other member countries, the court said.

The decision is a boost for those who still hope that Brexit can be stopped, particularly if Parliament votes against May’s deal. It came a day after thousands of people gathered in London for competing protests by supporters and opponents of Brexit, demonstrating that the issue has lost none of its divisive potency.

Britain has received several special concessions as part of its current membership terms, including one that allows it to opt out permanently from any obligation to join the EU’s single currency, the euro. It also gains a valuable rebate on some of its annual budget contributions.

Were it to remain in the bloc, these membership terms would be kept, the court ruled. The ruling was made under a special, expedited procedure because of the urgency of the situation. The case was taken to the court by a group of politicians who want to keep a close relationship with the European Union, or to reverse Brexit, including Alyn Smith, a member of the European Parliament from the Scottish National Party. In a Twitter post, he described the judgment as a “total vindication.”

Even so, a decision to stop Brexit remains some way off. It seems likely that remaining in the union would require lawmakers to decide to hold a second referendum on whether to reverse the 2016 decision. So far, there is no obvious majority in Parliament for that step.

On Monday, May was still trying to win further promises from the European Union to reassure some pro-Brexit British lawmakers who are worried that her deal could leave Britain beholden to some EU rules indefinitely.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, told the BBC on Monday that Britain had no intention of reversing its decision to leave the European Union.