Theresa May’s Brexit plan appears headed for defeat next week

Brexit protesters demonstrate outside of the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday. (Neil Hall/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

LONDON — The Brexit debate heated up again on Wednesday, as Parliament resumed its discussion of the withdrawal agreement Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the European Union. But British lawmakers didn’t appear any closer to approving a deal than they were before the holidays.

“Not a single dot or comma has changed,” said Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party.

May is “recklessly wasting time, holding the country to ransom with the threat of no deal in a desperate attempt to blackmail MPs to vote for her hopelessly unpopular deal,” he said.

“The only way to avoid no deal,” May retorted, “is to vote for the deal.”

May’s compromise version of what withdrawal would look like is up for a parliamentary vote next Tuesday. It’s a vote May postponed in December when it was clear she would face a massive defeat.

May has said talks with the E.U. are ongoing and that she will present Parliament with fresh assurances before Tuesday. But the E.U. has said it is done negotiating, and Parliament is expected to reject the deal.

To speed up what happens next, lawmakers on Wednesday approved an amendment requiring May to present Parliament with a Plan B by Jan. 21.

“It’s the start, I think, of an essential dialogue between government and Parliament to try and find a way out of the difficulties we are facing,” Dominic Grieve, the Conservative lawmaker who tabled the amendment, told the BBC.

But it’s difficult to imagine what sort of deal could get a majority backing in Parliament.

Over the past year, Parliament has become more polarized, said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. That makes May’s job “very difficult, and it’s very, very hard to see what the outcome will be.”

Those who favor Brexit as a way to reclaim British sovereignty have been reluctant to back any agreement that keeps Britain too closely tied to the E.U. Many want legally-binding assurances that Britain won’t be permanently be trapped in the so-called Irish backstop, which would keep Britain in the E.U. customs union if no better way is devised to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Sammy Wilson, of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland that props up May’s minority government, tweeted Wednesday that the assurances provided by the government so far were “meaningless.”

Those who oppose Brexit, meantime, have yet to be convinced of a deal that offers more benefits than Britain remaining a member of the bloc.

Britain is scheduled to leave the E.U. on March 29, and May has repeatedly insisted that Brexit will happen then. But now there are mutterings about extending the departure date.

“We are already seeing hints on that from the government,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “It strikes me we are being softened up for that possibility.”

Other possible outcomes include a vote of no-confidence, a general election and a second Brexit referendum.

The government hopes that the threat of Britain the E.U. in a chaotic no-deal Brexit will push skeptics into backing May’s deal. But for many Brexiteers, the government warnings about the disruption triggered by a no-deal Brexit — including food and medicine shortages — are exaggerated.

Boris Johnson, Britain’s former foreign secretary and prominent Brexiteer, argues that a no-deal Brexit is, actually, the “closest to what people actually voted for.”

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