British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to put her controversial withdrawal deal before MPs again this week, as she seeks backing for it ahead of an European Union (EU) council meeting.
With more MPs falling behind the deal, it could become an even closer contest this time, though Ms. May is still expected to lose again, as she struggles to rally support from hardliners in her party, who object to the backstop arrangements to avoid a hard border on island of Ireland in the event of future talks breaking down.
The uncertainty was palpable, with no confirmation that the vote would be taking place. According to a motion that the government won in Parliament on Thursday last week, should the withdrawal deal be passed by March 20 (Wednesday), Britain will seek a short technical extension to June 30 at the very latest to ensure that it doesn’t have to participate in European parliamentary elections on May 23. However, were the MPs to reject the deal again, the motion empowers her to seek a potentially longer extension that could force Britain to participate in those elections, raising all sorts of complexities that would entangle Britain in EU processes for a far longer period of time than many Brexiteers would want.
Ms. May’s critics have argued that her strategy involves trying to bulldoze MPs to support the deal, and there are certainly signs that some have come around to backing her deal. While she lost by a smaller margin the second time around (by 149 votes as opposed to 230 votes in January), the margin could be even closer this time, as Ms. May has sought to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party to back the deal. Over the weekend, Ms. May’s government held talks with the DUP in the hopes of garnering their support. Others appeared to be wavering too: Jacob Rees-Mogg the chair of the hard-line European Research Group and vocal critic of Ms. May’s deal, told LBC radio that while no deal was better than a bad deal, a bad deal was “better than staying in the EU.”
However, even if the DUP were to back the deal, there remain many opposed, not least Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, who in an article in The Daily Telegraph, urged MPs not to back Ms. May’s deal, and urged her to return to Brussels and push for changes to the backstop arrangements before putting it to MPs again.
“It is very hard to see her winning,” says Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, adding that it would involve a balance of competing perspectives. “There are some who don’t want a delay because they don’t want this to keep on going and they are fed up with the uncertainty. There are some who don’t want to risk (voting against it) because they see it as a “Remainer” ploy, and there are some who are playing deeply cynical game, because for all their expressed commitment to Brexit, what they want to see is for Brexit not to happen so they can remain committed to Brexit in its purest ideological form for party electoral purposes,” he said.
However, he believes it is likely that should she lose (or decide to pull the vote altogether which is still a possibility) she could bring the withdrawal agreement back to MPs the following week, just days before Britain is set to leave the EU at 11am on March 29. He notes that the motion to delay Brexit on Thursday did not commit her to extending Article 50 to a specific date if the withdrawal deal were defeated by March 20, just that it could be longer period of time. The vote next week could be presented as the final opportunity for MPs to back the deal or face a very lengthy delay to Brexit.