May pushes Brexit to the brink as talks hit deadlock ahead of vote
PM faces 'inevitable' huge defeat in vote amid doubts on her future
Theresa May is yet again set to push Brexit to the absolute brink in two parallel confrontations, with the EU on one side, and her own rebelling Conservative Party colleagues on the other.
With just 18 days left to the Brexit deadline of March 29, the UK prime minister is still hanging on for EU concessions on the Irish Border backstop, which Brussels is resolutely refusing.
It came as reports in the British press suggested the EU is preparing to charge Britain billions of euro and impose a number of other punitive conditions as its price for agreeing a Brexit delay if Mrs May is forced to ask for an extension this week.
At the same time, Mrs May has ramped up a stark warning to her own party rebels that Brexit risks "not happening at all" if they fail to back her withdrawal deal in another crucial vote due in Westminster tomorrow.
Almost two months ago, the House of Commons rejected the Withdrawal Agreement by a huge majority of 230 votes. That sent Mrs May back to renegotiate the deal she had agreed on November 25 at a special EU leaders' summit in Brussels.
In Dublin to attend the Ireland-France Six Nations rugby international yesterday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said contacts were ongoing with UK officials.
But sources close to the process said there was no move beyond the deadlock which emerged on Friday when an EU formula was rejected out of hand by the UK government.
Many MPs at Westminster have warned another defeat tomorrow now appears "inevitable". This raises the prospect of two more promised votes, possibly both to be held on Wednesday, one to rule out a calamitous no-deal crash-out, a second to seek an extension to the Brexit process beyond March 29.
It also raises questions of the future of the British prime minister.
Mrs May's earlier warnings to Brexiteers on the risk of a delay ultimately derailing the Brexit process was trenchantly repeated yesterday by a key ally. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that any delay risked helping those seeking to keep Britain in the EU by improving prospects for holding another referendum.
"There is a risk and possibility that we end up losing Brexit if we get the votes wrong in the next couple of weeks," he told the BBC. These comments were echoed earlier by Mrs May and followed weeks of EU-UK talks focused on the so-called backstop, an arrangement of crucial interest to Ireland.
This is an element of the Brexit deal intended to keep the Irish Border open. It would keep Britain in the EU's customs union and parts of its single market unless and until another way, such as a future EU-UK post-Brexit trade deal, is found to avoid Border checks.
Many MPs fear it is a trap to keep them tied to EU rules.
Mr Barnier repeated on Friday that the bloc could offer a legally binding statement confirming the backstop was only meant to be temporary.
But this was not enough to convince Mrs May's critics in the Commons, which rejected the deal by 432 votes to 202 in January.
"It is inevitable this unchanged withdrawal agreement will be voted down again," two senior Brexit-supporting MPs, Conservative Steve Baker and Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), both warned yesterday in a joint newspaper article.
If the prime minister loses, MPs are likely to vote against a "no-deal" exit on Wednesday, paving the way for another vote on delaying Brexit.
Mrs May is offering the possibility of a "short, limited" delay, which she opposed for a long time. Any extension needs to be approved unanimously by the other 27 EU leaders, who will meet at a Brussels summit on March 21-22, just a week before Brexit day.
However, reports in 'The Daily Telegraph' suggest the EU is preparing to charge up to a billion pounds a month and impose a number of other punitive conditions as its price for agreeing a Brexit delay.
The report said some EU member states are "hardening" their attitudes towards a delay and will demand "legal and financial conditions" including an increase to the £39bn (€45bn) divorce payment.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the runaway favourite among Tory members to succeed Mrs May, has accused the EU of treating Britain with "contempt" and expecting it to sign up to a "Carthaginian" deal. He urged his fellow MPs to vote against both the deal and a delay, to force the EU to come to the table when its leaders meet on March 21.