LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May abruptly postponed a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal on Monday, throwing Britain’s plan to leave the European Union into chaos after admitting that she faced a rout.
Announcing the delay, May was laughed at by some lawmakers when she said there was broad support for her deal reached with the EU last month, the result of 18 months of tortuous negotiations, and that she had listened carefully to different views over it.
“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. The United Kingdom would meanwhile step up contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit when it is due to leave on March 29.
With her position in open jeopardy, May said she would now go back to the EU and seek reassurances over the so-called Irish backstop. It is meant to ensure no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit, but is seen by many on all sides in parliament as leaving Britain’s Northern Ireland province within the EU’s economic and regulatory orbit.
But Germany’s foreign minister said there were no possibilities to amend Britain’s 585-page withdrawal deal. “I cannot see at the moment what could be changed…We have an agreement…supported by both sides. We want an orderly Brexit,” Heiko Maas after a meeting with counterparts in Brussels.
European Council President Donald Tusk said later that the EU was ready to discuss how to smooth ratification of the deal by Britain’s parliament, but added that the backstop could not be renegotiated. He said time was running out for a negotiated settlement and he would convene a Council meeting on Thursday.
The vote postponement marks what many lawmakers cast as the collapse of May’s two-year attempt to forge a compromise under which the United Kingdom would exit the EU while staying largely within its economic sphere.
Sterling skidded to its weakest level since April 2017, falling to $1.2507. It was trading at $1.50 on the day of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Yields on U.S. 10-year bonds dropped to the lowest since late August.
The EU’s 27 other members, which have a combined economic might six times that of the United Kingdom, appeared unlikely to countenance substantive changes which would convince her domestic opponents to support her deal.
A costly British exit without a negotiated accord looks increasingly likely, French European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said following word of May’s decision.
“The risk of a no-deal exit would also be an exit that would be undoubtedly extremely costly for the United Kingdom but which would be damaging for the EU too. Some are drawing up other scenarios and the confusion in London remains particularly strong,” Loiseau told French lawmakers.
The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said Britain no longer had “a functioning government” and called on May to “make way” for a Labour government. Just a handful of MPs publicly supported her deal on Monday.
Other smaller parties, such as the Scottish nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, said they would support a vote of no confidence in May’s government.
May indicated she was seeking further assurances from the EU on the working of the backstop – an insurance policy to avoid a return to border checks between Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland, and would seek to give the British parliament more power over its application to satisfy sovereignty demands.
May said that other EU leaders were open to a discussion about the backstop, but few in parliament were convinced.
“Please, prime minister, really do start listening and come back with changes to the withdrawal agreement or it will be voted down,” said Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Northern Irish party which props up May’s minority government.
The Democratic Unionist Party are upset as the backstop could align Northern Ireland more closely with the EU than the rest of the United Kingdom.
The EU is due to hold a summit on Dec. 13-14.
May said the deeper question was whether parliament wanted to deliver on the will of the people for Brexit, or open up the divisions in the world’s fifth largest economy with another referendum.
“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?” May asked.
Her decision to halt the vote came just hours after the EU’s top court, the Court of Justice, said in an emergency judgment that London could revoke its Article 50 formal divorce notice with no penalty.