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May Narrowly Survives Yet Another Brexit Test

For months, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain has been buffeted between hard-liners who want a clean break with the European Union and those who favor a softer exit to protect the economy. This week she got it from both camps.

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Stephen Castle
, New York Times

For months, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain has been buffeted between hard-liners who want a clean break with the European Union and those who favor a softer exit to protect the economy. This week she got it from both camps.

On Tuesday, it was the turn of the softer, pro-European conservatives in her ranks who put her to the test, as she narrowly averted defeat in a parliamentary vote that signaled the potential for months of gridlock over the country’s tortured efforts to extract itself from the bloc.

It was the second consecutive day of close votes for May, who faced a similar challenge Monday from hard-liners, a measure of the tightening course she must navigate between the competing camps within her Conservative Party.

May secured victory by just six votes Tuesday, scraping home in the highly charged aftermath of two Cabinet resignations and amid persistent speculation about a challenge to her leadership.

The wafer-thin margin suggested that Parliament is close to an impasse over Britain’s withdrawal, or Brexit.

The mounting deadlock leaves no certainty that any outcome to Brexit negotiations this fall could command enough support for approval from Parliament later this year, something that could yet put the process on an unpredictable and perilous path.

May’s Conservative Party has been in ferment since she secured Cabinet agreement at Chequers, her country residence, early this month for a plan that aimed to keep some close economic ties to the European Union, Britain’s largest trading partner.

That is anathema to Brexit hard-liners, who want to break free from the bloc’s rule book. May’s approach provoked the resignation of several ministers and Conservative Party officials, including Boris Johnson, who quit as foreign secretary.

President Donald Trump inflamed the dispute during his visit to Britain last week, arguing that May’s proposals might kill the prospects of a trade deal with the United States.

The tension over Brexit spiked again Tuesday, when Britain’s election watchdog, the Electoral Commission, ruled that the official pro-Brexit campaign group Vote Leave had broken the law on political spending during the 2016 referendum campaign over membership in the bloc.

The commission said Vote Leave had exceeded its spending limit of 7 million pounds (about $9 million) by funneling 675,315 pounds through a pro-Brexit youth group called BeLeave. The founder of BeLeave, Darren Grimes, was fined 20,000 pounds and referred to the police, along with a Vote Leave official, David Halsall.

The findings prompted some lawmakers to call for the referendum to be declared invalid, an outcome that is unlikely.

The conclusions are nevertheless embarrassing for senior Conservative figures who fronted the pro-Brexit campaign, including Johnson and Michael Gove, the environment secretary. Vote Leave disputed the findings and characterized them as politically motivated.

But the biggest domestic problems for May lie in Parliament, where her Chequers Brexit proposal has enraged her hard-liners, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, a right-wing Conservative lawmaker.

On Monday, he was among those supporting amendments to a customs bill designed to toughen the Chequers deal and reduce May’s scope to make concessions when she negotiates with the European Union. May gave way, accepting the amendments even though some critics think they render her Chequers plan unworkable.

In doing so, May angered her more pro-European lawmakers, some of whom believe that hard-line Brexiteers want to sabotage the Chequers agreement, ensuring that the European Union rejects it and that Britain quits the bloc with no deal at all.

On Tuesday, the pro-Europeans hit back with an amendment that would have obliged the government to seek a customs union with the European Union if there is no agreement in January on a common free trade area for goods.

May has ruled out a customs union because membership would prevent Britain from striking free-trade deals with nations outside Europe, and her victory Tuesday will be a big relief for her.

Later in the day, May lost another, less symbolic, parliamentary vote called by pro-Europeans to ensure that British pharmaceutical companies would be regulated by the European Medicines Agency.

But May will face a severe test later this year, assuming she survives that long in power, both in trying to negotiate a deal on future ties with the European Union and then in getting approval in Parliament for any agreement she can make.

On Monday May’s office ruled out the prospect of holding a referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal, but that may not be the final word.

If a Brexit deal is blocked in Parliament, May’s options would be limited, since she does not want Britain to leave the European Union without a deal, with all of the economic damage that would entail.

May could consider another general election, an appeal to the European Union to extend negotiations or another referendum.

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