Britain’s plans to leave the European Union are in chaos after Prime Minister Theresa May abruptly cancelled a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, admitting it had no hope of passing.
Ms May’s stunning move Tuesday morning (Australian time), on the eve of the crucial vote, opens up an array of options for the United Kingdom, including a disorderly Brexit with no deal, another referendum on EU membership, or a last-minute renegotiation of the PM’s deal.
Announcing the delay, Ms May admitted her Brexit deal “would be rejected by a significant margin” if MPs voted on it.
“We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the House at this time,” she said, adding that the UK would go back to the EU and ask for changes to the deal.
The EU executive earlier said it would not renegotiate its Brexit agreement.
“We have an agreement on the table,” a spokeswoman for the EU Commission told reporters on Monday night, adding: “We will not renegotiate.”
European Council President Donald Tusk, however, said the remaining EU leaders would be willing to “discuss how to facilitate UK ratification” of the withdrawal agreement at Thursday’s summit in Brussels.
The Prime Minister was laughed at by some MPs when she said there was broad support for her deal –the result of 18 months of tortuous negotiations – and that she had listened carefully to different views.
Ms May accepted there was concern among MPs about the Northern Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy aimed at avoiding a return to border checks between the British province and Ireland that could threaten a 1998 peace accord.
Her critics, both supporters of Brexit and its opponents, have rejected the open-ended backstop that could require Britain to accept European Union rules indefinitely, long after it gives up any say in drafting them.
Ms May said the broader 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.
Ms May refused to say when the vote on her deal would now be held, saying it would depend how long fresh talks with the EU lasted.
Her own position is uncertain and she could face a swift challenge. Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn said the UK no longer had “a functioning government”.
A small Northern Irish party that props up Ms May’s Conservative minority government called the situation a shambles. Scottish nationalists pledged to support a vote to bring the government down.
The decision to halt the vote came just hours after the EU’s top court ruled that Britain could unilaterally withdraw its decision to leave the bloc on March 29.
In an emergency judgement delivered on Monday night, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said: “The United Kingdom is free to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the EU.”
The ruling is in line with an opinion delivered last week by a court legal adviser. That had boosted the hopes of British Brexit opponents that a new referendum could be held that would prevent Britain’s scheduled departure on March 29, 2019.