Tuesday 19 February 2019

Theresa May confirms delay to key Brexit vote, admitting she would lose amid 'deep concern' over Irish backstop

  • Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and EU Council President Donald Tusk to 'intensify' preparations for no deal Brexit
  • Mr Varadkar insists deal on the table is the best option following phone call with Mr Tusk
  • May held crisis talks with EU leaders yesterday
  • MPs were due to vote on Brexit deal on Tuesday
  • ECJ ruled earlier today that UK can reverse Brexit process
  • Mrs May to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday
British Prime Minister Theresa May making a statement in the House of Commons, London, where she told MPs that tomorrow's
British Prime Minister Theresa May making a statement in the House of Commons, London, where she told MPs that tomorrow's "meaningful vote" on her Brexit deal had been deferred. Photo: PARBUL/PA Wire

Kevin Doyle and agencies

British Prime Minister Theresa May has abruptly pulled a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, throwing Britain's plan to leave the European Union into chaos after admitting that she faced a rout.

Mrs May's move on the eve of a crucial parliamentary vote opens up an array of options for the United Kingdom, including a disorderly Brexit with no deal, another referendum on EU membership, or a last minute renegotiation of May's deal.

Announcing the delay, May was laughed at by some lawmakers when she said there was broad support for the deal and that she had listened carefully to different views it - the result of 18 months of tortuous negotiations.

"If we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow the deal would be rejected by a significant margin," May told parliament, adding that she was confident it was the right deal.

"We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the House at this time," May said, adding that the United Kingdom would step up planning for a no-deal Brexit.

May accepted there was concern among lawmakers about the Northern Irish 'backstop' - an insurance policy aimed at avoiding a return to border checks on the island of Ireland that could threaten the 1998 Good Friday Agreement

"It is clear that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop, there remains widespread and deep concern," she said.

"We will therefore defer the vote schedule for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the house at this time."

Mrs May said she believed there was "a majority to be won" in the Commons on her deal, if she is able to "secure additional reassurance" on the backstop, and that this would be her focus over the coming days.

But she insisted: "There is no deal available that does not include the backstop."

Mrs May said she had spoken by phone with European leaders over the weekend and will meet others, as well as the chiefs of the European Council and Commission, before the EU summit opens in Brussels on Thursday.

"I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House has expressed," she said.

The British Government was also looking at "new ways of empowering the House of Commons" to ensure that any provision for a backstop has "democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely", said Mrs May.

She added: "If you take a step back, it is clear that this House faces a much more fundamental question.

"Does this House want to deliver Brexit? And if it does, does it want to do so through reaching an agreement with the EU?

"If the answer is yes, and I believe that is the answer of the majority of this House, then we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to make a compromise.

"Because there will be no enduring and successful Brexit without some compromise on both sides of the debate."

Mrs May added that the British Government was stepping up preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Mrs May's own position is uncertain and she could face a swift challenge. Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the United Kingdom no longer had "a functioning government".

The decision to halt the vote came just hours after the EU's top court ruled that Britain could unilaterally withdraw its decision to leave the bloc on March 29.

Meanwhile, the Government is to ramp up preparations for a no deal Brexit following a stormy day in the UK which has left Mrs May clinging to power.

Speaking after a phone call with EU Council President Donald Tusk Mr Varadkar again insisted that the deal on the table is the best option and is not up for renegotiation.

They also agreed preparations for a no deal "should intensify", a spokesperson said after the call.

Earlier both men had categorically ruled out re-opening negotiations with the Taoiseach pointing out that to open up negotiations on one aspect, such as the backstop, was not possible without risking unravelling the whole deal.

Mr Varadkar had earlier said that the only deal on the table is the one including the Irish backstop.

Mr Varadkar said: "The Withdrawal Agreement, including the Irish backstop, is the only deal on the table.

"It took over a year and a half to negotiate. It has the support of 28 EU governments, and it's not possible to reopen that aspect of the agreement without reopening all aspects."

He said the purpose of the phone call was for the Prime Minister "to update me on the progress she is making in trying to secure ratification of the withdrawal agreement".

President of the European Council Donald Tusk insisted the deal would not be renegotiated.

He said: "We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon slammed the postponement of the Commons vote as "an act of pathetic cowardice" which is "collapsing into utter chaos".

DUP leader Arlene Foster said deferment of the vote summed up the "chaotic" nature of the UK Government's approach to these negotiations.

"The Prime Minister was warned that this deal would not work but did not listen," she said.

"The fundamentally flawed Withdrawal Agreement would have undermined our United Kingdom economy and the Union itself.

"The backstop would have left Northern Ireland trapped as a hostage to the European Union."

She said the Prime Minister must get rid of the controversial insurance policy designed to ensure frictionless trade across the island if no better trade deal is struck.

"It is not needed. No one is building a hard border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland."

The DUP leader said pledges, promises or piecemeal remedies will not work.

"Unless it is part of the legally binding international treaty, it will not fly with the DUP."

Amid the chaos, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said: “The Prime Minister may be prepared to be humiliated by arrogant EU officials and arrogant Irish politicians. But doesn’t she believe that every time she returns to the House with her tail between her legs she humiliates the British people.”

Earlier today, the European Court of Justice ruled that Britain can cancel Brexit without getting the permission of other European Union countries, in a decision that could embolden Remain-supporting MPs to vote down Mrs May’s Brexit deal tomorrow.

A spokeswoman for the court said: "The revocation must be decided following a democratic process in accordance with national constitutional requirements. This unequivocal and unconditional decision must be communicated in writing to the European Council."

ECJ advocate general Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona said last week that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty allows the "unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU, until such time as the Withdrawal Agreement is formally concluded".

With additional reporting from the Press Association

Press Association

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