Britain’s battle over Brexit resumes ahead of big vote

LONDON (AFP) – Britain’s battle over Brexit resumed yesterday as Parliament returned from its Christmas break to debate and – most likely – defeat Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular European Union (EU) divorce deal.

The stakes could hardly be higher as the clock ticks down to the moment the world’s fifth-biggest economy splits from its main trading partner on March 29.

May and the other 27 EU leaders agreed on a draft agreement in November last year designed to keep the process as orderly and damage free as possible.

The accord took nearly two years to negotiate but has managed to upset just about everyone in British politics.

May survived her party’s resulting leadership no-confidence motion but was forced to abort a December vote on the pact in Parliament after admitting it would lose by a “significant margin”.

This December 10, 2018 file photo shows anti-Brexit demonstrators protesting outside Parliament with a giant ‘Vote Down Brexit’ spelled out in illuminated letters, as Theresa May answered questions in the House on the postponement of a crucial parliamentary vote on the Brexit agreement struck with EU leaders in London. – AFP

There are few signs that much has changed since.

May returned empty handed from a subsequent EU summit in December last year which she had hoped could address the concerns of her disgruntled Northern Irish coalition partners. Brexit-backing MPs in her Conservative party are still in open revolt while opposition Labour leaders are angling for new elections.

The BBC reported yesterday that the Brexit deal vote in Parliament is now set for January 15.

Downing Street declined to confirm the date, but May insisted last Sunday that it would not be delayed again.

The formal debate kicks off in Parliament tomorrow.

May warned last Sunday the deal’s defeat would put Britain “in uncharted territory (in which) I don’t think anybody can say exactly what will happen”.

London has been swirling with rumours about how exactly May intends to avoid Britain crashing out of the bloc without any trade or other arrangements in place – something a large chunk of MPs oppose.

The Prime Minister received a cross-party letter last Sunday from 209 lawmakers urging her “to agree a mechanism that would ensure a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could not take place”.

One tactic touted by advisers to force May’s deal through Parliament would see the government re-introducing more or less the same version of the draft over and over again.

“If we have to have the vote 30 times, we will,” a Downing Street source told BuzzFeed News.

May refused to rule out the possibility of a second or third vote when pressed about it in the BBC interview last Sunday.

May was expected to meet her party’s MPs yesterday and tomorrow in an attempt to sway waverers.

The arm twisting will be accompanied by a new government campaign designed to prepare Britons for the full impact of a disruptive no-deal scenario. One test yesterday saw dozens of trucks taking over a disused airport earmarked as a future lorry park and then driven down a highway to the Channel port of Dover to assess how the infrastructure can cope.

Dover handles most of Britain’s trade with Europe and is expected to get quickly clogged up if no customs arrangements are made.

The pro-Brexit former foreign secretary Boris Johnson claimed in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph that leaving without an agreement is actually “closest to what people voted for”.