Theresa May makes final push for her deal ahead of crunch Brexit vote

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 13, 2019 11:14 hrs
Theresa May (AP photo)

London: British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday made a final push for the United Kingdom Parliament to back her Brexit withdrawal deal in a crunch vote after she claimed to have secured 'legally binding' changes to the draft rejected by the House of Commons earlier this year.

May called on MPs in the House of Commons ahead of the vote scheduled for around 1900 GMT on Tuesday to get behind her enhanced agreement setting out the UK's exit strategy from the EU or risk going against the will of the majority that voted for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum.

"This is the moment...Back this motion and get the deal done. We cannot serve our country by overturning a democratic decision of the British people," she said, hours after claiming a breakthrough in negotiations with the European Union to secure changes to the controversial Irish backstop to make it more acceptable to all sides of the Commons.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn countered that it was the same 'bad deal' MPs had rejected in January and that his party would be voting against it again because it risks people's living standards and jobs.

The clash came soon after UK Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox confirmed that the legal risk from the controversial Irish backstop 'remains unchanged', leading to hard-Brexiteers from within May's own Conservative Party refusing to back the so-called 'improved' divorce arrangement, leaving Britain's exit from the EU still precariously poised ahead of the March 29 Brexit deadline.

In a last-minute dash to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday night, May emerged alongside European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker to declare that the UK and EU have agreed 'legally binding' changes to the controversial Irish backstop clause to ensure any such arrangement would not be permanent.

The move was aimed at addressing the concerns of hard-Brexiteers in her own Conservative Party and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which provides her government with its majority in the House of Commons.

"MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes. Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal," May said at a joint press conference with Juncker.

Brexiteers from within her party and the DUP had refused to comment if they feel the changes she has secured will be enough for them to vote in favour of the deal before they take full legal advice on the changes.

UK's chief legal advisor Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said the extra assurances won by May do 'reduce the risk that the UK could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained' in the backstop if talks on the two sides' future relationship broke down due to 'bad faith' by the EU.

However, the 'legal risk remains unchanged' if no such deal can be reached due to 'intractable differences', the UK would have 'no internationally lawful means' of leaving the backstop without EU agreement.

The Brexit-backing European Research Group within the Tory Party declared soon after that it will not be voting for the withdrawal agreement in the Commons later, in a major blow to May's leadership.

The parliamentary arithmetic at this stage seems to be titled against May even though many of her Cabinet ministers have been publicly trying to drum up support for the deal to be passed through the Commons.

May also addressed a meeting of Conservative MPs in an effort to change the minds of those opposed to her deal and many seem to have agreed to switch their no during a Commons vote earlier this year to a yes on Tuesday.

Earlier, the EU had said it had made significant concessions as two additional documents were agreed to back up the withdrawal agreement struck in December last year -- a joint legally binding instrument which the UK could use to start a 'formal dispute' against the EU if it tried to keep the UK tied into the backstop indefinitely and a joint statement committing both sides to find an alternative to the backstop by the end of the Brexit transition period of December 2020.

"In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. There will be no third chance' it is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,' Juncker said, issuing a stark warning to Britain's MPs over the importance of the parliamentary vote in the UK on Tuesday.

Ireland's Indian-origin premier, Leo Varadkar, also stressed the new agreements were an 'unambiguous statement' of both sides' 'good faith and intentions' even if they did not 'undermine' the principle of the backstop or how it might come into force.

The Irish backstop, an insurance policy designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland between UK territory Northern Ireland and EU member-state -- the Republic of Ireland -- has been the biggest sticking point for many MPs in the UK who voted against the withdrawal agreement tabled by May in January, by a massive margin of 230 votes.

The Opposition Labour Party, meanwhile, declared that May has secured nothing new.

"The PM is giving us basically the same deal," said Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer.

The legal arguments around the new changes will be the focal point of the vote scheduled at 1900 GMT.

If the deal fails to pass through, May's previously set timetable is set to kick in -- with MPs given a vote by Wednesday on leaving the EU without any deal in place, which is expected to be defeated as there is very little support for such an option.

All eyes will then be on another vote, expected by Thursday, in favour of delaying the March 29 deadline.