Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS

London — UK Prime Minister Theresa May is in a frantic search for the perfect compromise. Her mission is clear: to find a way to unite the warring Brexit factions in her party before they derail the government.

May’s officials begin work on Wednesday, drafting a new clause in her key piece of Brexit legislation after she narrowly avoided a defeat in Parliament by offering last-minute concessions to pro-EU lawmakers. The new text will probably reduce the chances of Britain tumbling out of the bloc without a deal — something businesses and investors fear as the worst case scenario.

However, as talks get going, May has two factions to please. First, the text needs to honour her pledge to pro-EU Tories that she’ll take account of their concerns about the possibility of leaving the bloc without a deal and give Parliament more say over the process.

If she fails to deliver, she will lose their goodwill and face a backlash she won’t be able to contain, people familiar with the matter said. Within hours of the agreement being struck, each side had a different version of what had been agreed, with the pro-Brexit camp saying the rebels were overstating the scale of the concession.

"I trust our prime minister to honour the undertaking she gave," said Anna Soubry, one of the pro-EU Tory rebels. "I am sure a sensible amendment will be forthcoming which we can all agree to."

Multiple fronts

May is racing against the clock on Brexit and fighting battles on multiple fronts. The UK will leave the EU in March next year, but talks in Brussels are struggling to make headway. The slow progress is in part because the premier can’t get her cabinet to agree on the kind of post-Brexit trade regime they want the UK to have with the EU.

In London, parliament is considering crucial pieces of law that need to be passed for the UK to leave the bloc without causing legal chaos. Opposition lawmakers are trying to change the draft to bind the UK more closely to the EU’s trade rules.

Pro-Brexit appeasement

At the same time, May must avoid angering pro-Brexit Tories, some of whom have threatened to try to oust her as leader if she betrays their vision of a clean break from the bloc.

"It is hugely irresponsible, and I can’t believe those who are perpetrators of this don’t know what they are doing," Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen told the BBC’s Today programme on Wednesday. "This is a betrayal of the British people. Being in the EU is like being pregnant — you’re either pregnant or you’re not. You’re either in the EU or you’re not."

The problem for the prime minister is that she can’t keep both sides happy. One pro-Brexit minister insisted the rebels had lost, and warned that if they continued to fight May they would only make a "no deal" divorce more likely.

No room for error

The premier now has until Friday to draft a legally watertight amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which will be acceptable to both sides.

There’s no time to get the wording of the compromise text wrong because it will probably be debated and voted on in the House of Lords on Monday, according to one senior government official. If the compromise fails, the rebels are likely to revert to their original motion, which would potentially strip May of control over running the Brexit negotiations and hand it to parliament, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"I have a problem both constitutionally and politically" with a resolution that has the House of Commons "directing the process", solicitor-general Robert Buckland told the BBC on Wednesday. "There is no gap here. The government is very clear about its commitment to a new amendment."

Either way, the chances are increasing that parliament will get a greater say over Brexit.

"A lot of people voted to take back control, well a lot of control is now going to come back to our sovereign parliament," Nicky Morgan, a high-profile pro-EU lawmaker, said in an interview on Bloomberg TV on Wednesday. "As elected representatives, I think it’s right that we do have a say."