Theresa May's Brexit quest hits backstop turbulence in Brussels

Saul Bowman
December 15, 2018

"In terms of a no deal, let's not forget ultimately, it is within the gift of the United Kingdom government and the United Kingdom parliament to take the threat of no deal off the table", Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Thursday.

"There is work still to do and we will be holding talks in coming days about how to obtain the further assurances that the UK Parliament needs in order to be able to approve the deal".

European leaders, meanwhile, have refused to countenance changes to any aspects of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop proposal.

Speaking after the meetings in Brussels, European leaders appeared to express frustration with the inconsistency and vagueness of the UK's position, something May's critics on both the right and left have also complained of. A deal was signed off which the Prime Minister should have known would not gain the support of Parliament.

The outcome of the vote was welcomed by Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who said avoiding a no-deal exit from the European Union was a "shared goal".

Vociferous opposition to her withdrawal plan - brokered after months of arduous negotiations between London and Brussels - forced the British leader to pull a parliamentary vote on it scheduled for Tuesday.

May said she had been heard on the backstop: "No one that I met yesterday is in any doubt about the strength of concern in this house on this issue of the duration of the backstop". However, as The Independent explained, if more than 100 party members vote against her, May's authority could be irrevocably damaged and she may face pressure from Cabinet ministers to step down regardless.

But she added: "Whilst I am grateful for that support, a significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I have listened to what they said".

Instead, her focus is on salvaging her plan for an orderly Brexit and on persuading her European counterparts to offer guarantees that Britain will not remain trapped indefinitely in their customs union.

He added: "Theresa May has led a courageous fight, but unfortunately we are not seeing the results".

Mrs May had earlier acknowledged that major progress was unlikely at the two-day summit, even as she tried to get tweaks to the withdrawal package that she could use to win over opponents - particularly pro-Brexit politicians whose loathing of the deal triggered a challenge to her leadership this week.

The triggering of the vote of no confidence has plunged the Brexit process into further chaos as Sir Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, received at least 48 letters needed for a call of a vote of no confidence. The DUP, like the Brexit hardliners, strongly oppose her deal, meaning that any respite afforded by Wednesday's vote will only be temporary.

May still hopes to pass her Brexit deal through British parliament, but that was always a long-shot-and now that she's effectively announced a countdown clock on her leadership, her ability to twist arms and make deals to ensure passage of her Brexit deal has not increased.

The summit took place over Thursday and Friday, in which UK Prime Minister Theresa May was attempting to renegotiate on the Northern Irish backstop. "Indeed it is the only deal that is capable of getting through my parliament", she told them.

But despite her victory Mrs May faced calls from opponents, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, to resign.

And she said she and her administration had a "renewed mission", saying: "Following this ballot, we now need to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people and building a better future for this country".

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