Theresa May offered warring British MPs “one last chance” to pass her Brexit deal next week, but her pleas were met with stony silence from UK lawmakers on Tuesday (21 May).
The Prime Minister’s “new Brexit deal”, to be set out in a 100-page Brexit Withdrawal Bill, includes a series of incentives to recalcitrant MPs, ranging from commitments on employment and environmental standards to the prospect of a second referendum.
Speaking on Tuesday, May warned that the continued political deadlock over Brexit “risks opening the door to a nightmare future of permanently polarised politics”.
The Brexit agreement, which May agreed with EU leaders last November, has been rejected three times by the House of Commons, most recently falling to a 58 vote defeat on March 29, the day on which the UK was originally supposed to have formally left the bloc.
Failure to get the Withdrawal Agreement bill through its Second Reading in Parliament next week will force the government to officially abandon it, prompting May to make a final bid to persuade MPs from the opposition Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Party to support it.
Following the defeat on March 29, cross-party talks were opened with the opposition Labour party, but failed to produce a compromise, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying that May had refused to move on his key demand of a permanent customs union between the EU and UK.
May conceded that negotiating a Brexit deal with warring UK political parties had “proved even harder than I anticipated”.
Mrs May also offered MPs the chance to force a referendum on her deal, provided that they vote in favour of it.
“I do not believe this is a route that we should take, because I think we should be implementing the result of the first referendum….but I recognise the genuine and sincere strength of feeling across the House on this issue,” she said.
She also promised to introduce a separate bill to guarantee that workers’ rights and environmental standards do not fall behind the EU, while MPs will also have the chance to vote on a temporary customs union on goods. If Labour won the next general election, they could upgrade it to a permanent arrangement.
But the proposal was swiftly rejected by Conservative eurosceptics and the Labour party. Around 20 Tory MPs who voted for the bill on March 29 have already signalled that they plan to oppose it.
“There’s nothing new or bold about this bad buffet of non Brexit options,” said former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith. “The backstop is still there, it’s a customs union in all but name and it puts Brussels firmly in control of our destiny,” he added.
Corbyn dismissed the proposal as “a repackaged version of the same old deal”.
May’s party is expected to suffer a humiliating defeat in Thursday’s European elections, where it is forecast to poll less than 10% and finish in fifth place behind Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
The Conservatives have done little campaigning ahead of Thursday’s polls and could win as few as three of the UK’s 73 MEP seats.
Last week, May is believed to have agreed to demands by her backbench MPs that she set out her timetable to resign her party’s leadership if her Brexit deal is defeated a fourth time.
May’s resignation would fire the starting gun on a leadership contest that is not expected to conclude before the UK Parliament goes into recess in mid-July. That will leave a very narrow window for May’s successor to open talks with EU negotiators and for the UK Parliament to pass a deal before the UK’s new planned exit date of October 31.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]