Brexiteers go for broke, sink Theresa May’s deal

Pro-Brexit MPs once again scuppered Theresa May’s deal on Tuesday, playing a high-stakes game of political poker by holding out for their ultimate prize at the risk of losing everything.

Many “Brexiteers” — once known as “eurosceptics” — have built their whole political careers on opposition to Britain’s membership to the EU, and success is tantalisingly close.

But few had any enthusiasm for Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposals for leaving on March 29, hammered out over months of talks with the European Union, which were soundly defeated by 149 votes on Tuesday.

Brexiteers fear the deal would leave Britain a “vassal state”, leading Leave backer Boris Johnson on Tuesday to call its “backstop” plan for the Irish border a “prison”.

He and his colleagues believe the backstop would leave Britain stuck taking rules from the EU without having a say and also chafe at the £39 billion exit bill.

Johnson told parliament he could not vote for the deal, saying “whatever the government tried to do, it has not succeeded” and had only “sewed an apron of fig-leaves that does nothing to conceal the embarrassment and the dignity of the UK.”

But having rejected the deal, the House of Commons will now vote this week on whether to rule out a “no-deal” Brexit and delay it — giving further time for pro-Europeans to try to undermine the whole process.

Veteran hardliners
The dilemma spooked some of those who opposed May’s deal when it was first voted on in January, with around 40 switching sides to back the deal.

Former Brexit minister David Davis was May’s highest profile defector, and influential MP Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the eurosceptic European Research Group, at one point appeared to be wavering.

However, he voted on Tuesday against the divorce deal, and there were nowhere near enough defectors to get it over line.

Some believe a better deal is still possible before Britain’s scheduled exit from the EU — despite the bloc ruling out further negotiations– or say they are ready to walk away without an agreement.

When May’s deal was first put to the House of Commons in January, more than one-third of her Conservative MPs — 118 out of 306 — joined opposition parties to vote against it.

The 10 MPs in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May’s government in parliament, also voted it down.

The prime minister came back from late-night talks in Strasbourg on Monday hoping that concessions over the hated backstop would convince them to back the deal.

But Attorney General Geoffrey Cox delivered her chances a hammer blow on Tuesday, explaining that the changes would not legally allow Britain to leave the mechanism unilaterally — leaving little wiggle room for those who had spent the last two months saying they could not back such a deal.

While some did switch sides, the rump of veteran eurosceptics, including Bill Cash — a rebel who took on former prime minister John Major over the EU’s Maastricht Treaty — always held the power to kill the deal, given Labour and the DUP’s opposition and May’s slender working majority.

– No deal push –
May used various arguments to persuade MPs to back her deal, warning both that defeating it risks a “no deal” Brexit, or that Britain may never leave the EU at all.

Fear of the economic damage of withdrawing with no deal prompted pro-European ministers to threaten to resign if she did not allow MPs to vote to delay Brexit as an alternative.

But many hardline Brexiteers believe these worries are overblown.

John Longworth, co-chairman of the campaign group Leave Means Leave, is among those calling for Britain and the EU to agree a basic trade deal and exit as planned on March 29.

Other Brexiteers meanwhile believe Britain must keep “no deal” as a bargaining chip — and believe that even at this late stage they can still get a better deal.

(AFP)
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