May piles pressure on MPs to back Brexit deal

Pro- and anti-Brexit protesters hold flags as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Thursday as members debate a motion on whether to seek a delay to Britain's exit from the EU. — AFP

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May piled pressure on rebel lawmakers on Thursday to back her battered EU divorce deal as parliament prepared to vote on seeking a delay to Britain's departure that could ultimately derail the process.

Two weeks before Britain is due to leave the European Union, May is using the threat of a long delay to push Brexit supporters in her Conservative Party finally to back her deal.

That vote could come next week, when those lawmakers will have to decide whether to back a deal they feel does not offer a clean break from the EU, or accept that Brexit could be watered down or even thwarted by a lengthy delay.

May's authority hit an all-time low this week after a series of parliamentary defeats and rebellions, but Finance Minister Philip Hammond said her plan was back on the agenda.

That deal, struck by May after two-and-a-half years of negotiations with the EU, was defeated heavily in parliament in January and again on Tuesday.

"Quite a number of colleagues changed their mind on this issue between the January vote and the vote earlier this week," Hammond told Sky News.

"It's clear that the House of Commons has to find a consensus around something and, if it isn't the prime minister's deal, I think it is likely to be something which is much less to the taste of those on the hard-Brexit wing of my party."

Britons voted by 52-48 percent in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU, a decision that has not only divided the main political parties but also exposed deep rifts in British society.

Although parliament on Wednesday voted against the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, the default position if nothing else is agreed remains that Britain will exit on March 29 without a transition arrangement.

Business leaders warn that this would cause chaos. Brexit supporters say that, in the longer term, it would allow Britain to forge trade deals across the world and thrive.

May's spokesman said she would put her deal to another vote "if it was felt that it were worthwhile".

European Union leaders meeting next Thursday — who would need to approve any extension — will consider pressing Britain to delay Brexit by at least a year, European Council President Donald Tusk said.

"I will appeal to the EU27 (remaining members) to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it," he said.

France said that a short Brexit delay merely to discuss May's existing deal was "out of the question".

But there was no sign that the prospect of a long delay — which could lead to Britain keeping closer ties to the EU than May had planned, or even a second Brexit referendum — was causing a major shift in the views of hardline euroskeptics in her Conservative Party who have so far thwarted her.

Lawmaker Andrew Bridgen accused her of pursuing a "scorched earth" policy of destroying all other Brexit options to leave lawmakers with a choice between her deal and a long delay. — Reuters