New debate on Brexit pledged

Theresa May.
Theresa May.
Image: AFP

British Prime Minister Theresa May will pledge this week to give parliamentarians another chance to voice their opinions on Brexit by February 27 as she tries to buy more time to negotiate a new deal with the European Union.

As the clock ticks down to Britain’s scheduled exit on March 29, May is trying to persuade the EU to change a deal agreed on between London and Brussels late in 2018 but overwhelmingly rejected by parliament in January.

May wants to win over legislators in her Conservative Party with changes relating to the Northern Irish border, but the EU has refused to reopen that part of the deal and instead wants May to pursue a compromise with the main opposition Labour Party by agreeing on closer UK-EU ties.

The impasse has left the world’s fifth-largest economy facing an uncertain future, rattling financial markets and businesses about the prospect of a disorderly and economydamaging exit from the bloc.

Housing minister James Brokenshire said on Sunday May would commit to giving parliament another debate on Brexit with the chance to vote on alternative options, if a deal had not yet been agreed and voted upon by then.

May is already due to update parliament on her progress towards a deal on Wednesday and then on Thursday to give parliament a chance to express its opinion.

The new pledge would be for a repeat of this process by February 27.

“That gives that sense of timetable, clarity, and purpose on what we’re doing with the EU – taking that work forward and our determination to get a deal – but equally knowing that role that parliament very firmly has,” Brokenshire said.

Brexit minister Stephen Barclay will meet EU negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday to discuss changes to the part of the exit deal relating to the “backstop”, an insurance policy against the return of a hard border between EU member Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland.

Labour’s Brexit policy chief, Keir Starmer, said his party would seek to use the debate in parliament this week to prevent May from waiting until the last minute to come back with a deal, and compel her to present a fresh accord for legislators to consider before February 26.

“We shouldn’t be put in a position where the clock is run down and the prime minister says it’s either my deal or even worse,” Starmer said.

The head of business lobby group the Confederation of British Industry warned that the chances of Britain leaving the EU next month without a deal had increased and the country had now entered “the emergency zone”.

May will ask legislators on Thursday to reaffirm that they support her bid to renegotiate the backstop, a source said.

The backstop is the main obstacle to securing agreement on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

May’s opponents are expected to put forward alternative approaches which will be voted upon, although it is not clear yet whether any will have sufficient support to pass, and if they do, whether they will force the government to act.

Labour’s plan, which has yet to be published in detail, will be among the options discussed on Thursday.

An opinion poll published in the Independent newspaper on Sunday showed 53% of British voters would support a delay in Brexit, while 33% would back a no-deal Brexit even if that harmed the economy. –Reuters