May's last attempt to salvage Brexit deal at risk

AFP , Wednesday 22 May 2019

Theresa May
File photo: PM Theresa May will be making a last-ditch attempt to get her three-times rejected Brexit deal through parliament. (Reuters)

British Prime Minister Theresa May's final bid to salvage her EU divorce deal appeared doomed on Wednesday as pro-Brexit Conservatives and opposition MPs rejected her attempts at a compromise to end months of deadlock.

The beleaguered leader is set to face a torrid session at Prime Minister's Questions in parliament on the eve of European elections that Britain had not even expected to take part in three years after the Brexit referendum.

The poll could see the vote of the two main parties decimated.

May vowed Tuesday to give lawmakers a vote on holding a public referendum on Brexit if they approve her unpopular withdrawal agreement in a series of votes starting in early June.

She also dangled a package of other sweeteners to the deal aimed at opposition Labour MPs, in a bid to break trenchant opposition which has seen parliament reject her plan three times this year.

May has said she will leave office shortly after the measures she outlined are voted on -- no matter the outcome.

"I recognise the genuine and sincere strength of feeling across the house on this important issue," May said.

However, MPs from across the political spectrum reacted furiously to the prime minister's latest offer, with Conservative Brexiteers crying betrayal and Labour lawmakers saying she had not compromised enough.

In a sign of the scale of the backlash, Environment Secretary Michael Gove hinted that the vote in the week of June 3 may not go ahead after all.

"We will reflect over the course of the next few days on how people look at the proposition," he told BBC radio.


A question of democracy

May's offer comes as Britain votes in EU elections Thursday with the two main parties trailing behind the Brexit Party and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, according to polls.

The latest YouGov survey showed eurosceptic populist Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party claiming 37 percent of votes, with Labour in third on 19 percent and the Tories lagging in fifth place with just seven percent.

"If we win big on Thursday, we will kill off any prospect of parliament forcing a second referendum upon us because they know they would lose!" Farage told supporters at a final rally Tuesday.

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, whose party is set to come second in the polls, told a party gathering on Tuesday that a vote for his party was "a vote to stop Brexit".

The pro-EU party's outright rejection of Brexit appears to be resonating with Remain voters who would normally back Labour or the Conservatives.


Last chance

May pitched her "new Brexit deal" as MPs' "last chance" to end political gridlock that has already delayed Britain's departure from the bloc past its original March deadline and prompted public anger.

The government is aiming for the law to be approved by the time parliament's summer recess begins on July 20, which would let the country leave at the end of that month -- as long as lawmakers reject a second referendum.

Otherwise the process could be delayed until October 31 -- the deadline set by the EU -- or even later if its leaders grant Britain another postponement.

May on Tuesday set out a series of incentives for MPs to vote for her deal.

Some were in line with demands from Labour, but fell short of their full demands put forward during weeks of cross-party talks which ended in deadlock last week.

"The prime minister needs to today accept that what she announced yesterday is not going to work and pull the vote," the party's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said Wednesday.


Must do better

May's proposals threaten to further repel eurosceptics in her own Conservative Party.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, the favourite to replace her as leader, said on Twitter he would not support the new package, having backed it last time it was put to parliament.

"We can and must do better -- and deliver what the people voted for," he said, rejecting the idea of any customs union or second referendum.

Analysts and British newspapers gave May little-to-no chance of winning on this occasion, with the eurosceptic Daily Telegraph calling her move: "Desperate, deluded, doomed."

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