EU and Union flags fly above Parliament Square in central London, Britain. File photo: REUTERS
EU and Union flags fly above Parliament Square in central London, Britain. File photo: REUTERS

London — British Prime Minister Theresa May abruptly decided on Monday to pull a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, throwing Britain’s plan to leave the EU up in the air on the eve of the vote after repeated warnings from legislators she faced a rout.

 The decision to halt the vote set for Tuesday was widely reported and not denied.

The move thrusts the UK’s divorce from the EU into chaos, with possible options including a disorderly Brexit with no deal, another referendum on EU membership, or a last-minute renegotiation of May’s deal.

May’s own position could face a swift challenge. Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the UK no longer had “a functioning government”.

A small Northern Irish party, which props up May’s Conservative minority government, called the situation a shambles. Scottish nationalists pledged to support a vote to bring the government down.

Corbyn said: “The government has decided Theresa May’s Brexit deal is so disastrous that it has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the 11th hour.”

Sterling skidded to its weakest level since June, 2017, falling to $1.2622.

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.

May’s government called that ruling meaningless because Britain has no intention to halt Brexit. But critics of her plans said it opens options, including delaying the exit for more talks, or calling it off if voters change their minds.

After repeated warnings that the December 11 vote in parliament would humiliate her government as opponents and supporters of Brexit joined in opposition to her deal, May convened a conference call with senior ministers on Monday.

If May stays in power, she could seek to get a better deal from the EU at a summit on December 13-14, in the hope of putting it before parliament at a later date.

One EU official said whatever happens, the part of the deal most contentious in Britain, a “backstop” to ensure no hard land border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the EU-member Irish Republic, could not be changed. May’s opponents say the backstop could leave Britain subject indefinitely to EU rules, long after it gives up a say in drafting them.

“Ultimately, it’s for the UK to explain what happens,” the EU official said. “Everybody is absolutely clear the backstop remains in place.”

More than two years since the vote, the UK remains divided on how or even whether it should leave the club it first joined in 1973.

Brexit is seen as Britain's most significant decision since World War 2. Supporters say it frees Britain to trade more widely with the rest of the world; opponents fear it will divide the West as it grapples with the unconventional presidency of US President Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

The ultimate outcome will shape Britain’s $2.8-trillion economy, have far-reaching consequences for the unity of the UK and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top global financial centres.

Just hours before the reports of a cancelled vote, the EU court ruled that Britain could cancel its official Article 50 notice to leave the bloc without permission from the other EU members and without losing any special privileges.

That went against the position of the EU’s own executive commission, which said Britain would need approval from other members to halt Brexit, and European leaders who had argued London should lose perks agreed over the years, such as a valuable rebate on its dues, if it cancels withdrawal.

The timing of the court ruling on the eve of the scheduled parliament vote was no coincidence: the court said it expedited its decision to ensure British legislators knew their options.

May’s foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, called the ruling irrelevant because Britain will leave no matter what, when scheduled on March 29. To do otherwise would disrespect the majority that voted to leave, he said. In the June 23 2016 referendum, 17.4- million voters, or 52%, backed Brexit while 16.1-million, or 48%, backed staying.

More than two years since the vote, the UK remains divided on how or even whether it should leave the club it first joined in 1973. Polls show few voters have changed their minds, despite warnings of economic turmoil.

Both May’s governing Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party are publicly committed to carrying out Brexit. A no-deal Brexit, though, is seen as so disruptive that parliament would be under strong pressure to block it.

A growing number of backbench members of parliament say the only solution would be a new referendum, an option backed by three of the four living former prime ministers, but strongly opposed by the government.

Michael Gove, the most prominent Brexit campaigner in the cabinet, said the court ruling “doesn’t alter either the referendum vote or the clear intention of the government to leave on March 29”.