Brexit Vote Delayed in Face of Broad Opposition

British Prime Minister Theresa May delayed a critical parliamentary vote on her government’s Brexit bill, throwing both her government and her plans for the U.K.’s exit from the European Union into disarray.

Source: WSJ - Max Colchester | Published on December 10, 2018

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The postponement of the vote came after Mrs. May spent an hour talking to her cabinet members Monday. Many of them urged her to pull the vote scheduled for Tuesday rather than suffer a huge parliamentary loss that could topple her government and send the Brexit negotiations spinning into even greater chaos.

The British pound dropped to its lowest level in more than a year on the news.

With just over three months until the U.K. is scheduled to quit the EU, the parliamentary delay could set the stage for a fresh round of fevered negotiations to tweak the deal. Mrs. May is expected to travel to Brussels on Thursday for a previously scheduled summit of EU leaders. An altered version of the deal could be put back before Parliament to approve within weeks.

Given the diplomatic legwork that went into forging the initial withdrawal deal, however, government officials are reticent to reopen the fraught talks with the EU. One avenue that could be explored is tweaking a non-legally binding document that sets out the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU.

Mrs. May spent the weekend holding phone calls with EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister.

“The withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, is the only agreement on the table,” said Mr. Varadkar on Monday. “It’s not possible to reopen any aspect without opening all aspects.”

But speaking in Brussels, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said, “Of course we will look carefully at any proposals she might make. But we know how difficult it has been to reach agreement. So if there will be talks, it won’t be easy.”

The fractured British political landscape makes it difficult to find a deal around which lawmakers can coalesce. If Parliament can’t decide on a form of Brexit, then the default option is for the country to leave the EU with no deal at all in March.

That could result in widespread economic disruption. To quell the squabbling over Brexit, there is an increasing possibility that Mrs. May calls another Brexit referendum over the deal or even a general election.

Whether Mrs. May would be in charge to see that through is another unknown. The delay raises questions about Mrs. May’s ability to lead the British government. “It will revive accusations that she is in office, not power, and add to the ‘end of days’ atmosphere at Westminster,” says Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group.

Mrs. May spent the past two weeks in campaign mode to sell her deal, including a whistle-stop tour of the U.K. and hours on her feet debating critical lawmakers in Parliament.

But with Brexit ravaging traditional political alliances, Mrs. May came up short. Analysts said up to a 100 Conservative lawmakers were planning to rebel against their government and oppose the deal. “We don’t have a functioning government,” said opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Mrs. May and her advisers had been bracing for a beating in Parliament. Already the prime minister has spent the past week meeting clusters of disgruntled lawmakers trying to find ways the deal could be altered.

But British lawmakers balked at some of the provisions of the deal, in particular a clause that could see the U.K. indefinitely locked in a customs agreement with the EU to avoid a hard border appearing in the island of Ireland.