Theresa May on Wednesday confirmed that she will not remain the British Prime Minister to oversee the next stage of Brexit negotiations, as she made a final attempt to persuade Conservative MPs to rally behind her Brexit deal, in a vote that could take place later this week.
She said she had taken the decision as the mood of Conservatives in Parliament had become clear. “I know there is a desire for a new approach — and new leadership — in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations, and I won’t stand in the way of that,” she told MPs of the Conservatives backbench 1922 Committee on Wednesday afternoon.
Speculation had been building that the Prime Minister could announce that she would step down earlier than previously indicated to persuade Brexit hardliners in her party to back the deal. While earlier this week, she had told MPs that she did not believe she had the sufficient numbers to get the withdrawal deal through, as discussions progressed it became clear that some — such as influential European Research Group chair Jacob Rees-Mogg — were willing to change their stance and back her deal if she were willing to make way for a new Prime Minister.
Can this swing the vote?
However, it remains unclear whether the shift will be enough to swing the vote in favour of the government. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland is yet to signal its willingness to back the deal, which would be crucial in tipping the balance. In addition, Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow on Wednesday reiterated his ruling that only a substantially different proposition could be put before MPs, adding another element of uncertainty.
This came as MPs on Wednesday sought to identify a route forward on Brexit as they voted on a series of eight alternative options — so-called indicative votes — that will range from pushing for a hard Brexit on April 12 to making the U.K. part of the EU customs union, to revoking Article 50 if the U.K. still doesn’t agree on a route forward four days before the April 12 deadline.
Among those alternatives commanding considerable support was a cross-party one that would push for a “Common Market 2.0” that would keep Britain in the European Free Trade Association, and in an effective customs union and single market with the EU (requiring the U.K. to keep freedom of movement with the EU).
The Labour Party also put forward a motion that would keep Britain in a permanent customs union, and “close alignment” with the single market. Yet another one that has commanded much attention was put forward by Labour MP Margaret Beckett and would require any deal and framework for the future relationship with the EU to be put to the people in a “confirmatory public vote”.
The government has steadfastly refused to commit to abiding by the outcome of the process — which could be followed by a second series of votes on Monday next week to identify one solution from a narrower selection.
Following an afternoon of debate, MPs were to at 7 p.m. local time vote on the options — all put to them at the same time on a ballot paper. Then on Monday afternoon again, MPs will take control of parliamentary business.
However, even if MPs were able to agree on one or two options, there remains much uncertainty. The government could still reject what is put on the table.
Avoiding a no-deal Brexit
And while the government has indicated that it wishes to avoid a no-deal exit, there are no guarantees that a no-deal Brexit can be avoided. Under the extension granted by the EU, if the deal is rejected this week, the U.K. will have until April 12 to come up with alternatives, or risk crashing out without a deal.
The EU could still reject any extension. Speaking in the European Parliament on Wednesday, and rejecting the suggestion from some that any further delay would lead to uncertainty, European Council president Donald Tusk said that the EU had to be open to an extension were it needed to help the U.K. rethink its Brexit strategy.
“You cannot betray the six million people who signed the petition to revoke Article 50, the one million who marched for a People’s Vote, or the increasing majority who want to remain in the European Union,” he said.