Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS
Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS

London/Brussels — British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy was in meltdown on Monday after her failure to win last-minute concessions from the EU set the stage for another humiliating defeat of her divorce deal in parliament.

Just 18 days before the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, there is still no ratified divorce deal and talks with the bloc have stalled as May tries to break the political deadlock in London.

May’s spokesperson said a meaningful parliamentary vote on her deal would go ahead on Tuesday, even though talks with the EU are deadlocked. The exact vote format was not immediately clear.

European officials said there had been no breakthrough in talks over the weekend and expressed frustration with May’s attempts to secure concessions just weeks before Britain’s exit.

“May has boxed herself even deeper into a corner, and it seems the second meaningful vote will go ahead on Tuesday but it also seems like it won’t be the last meaningful vote on this,” one EU official said.

“We really want to be over with it now. It’s not going anywhere so even an extension is unlikely to break the impasse. There is not much patience or goodwill left on our side.”

European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said it was up to the British parliament to take important decisions on Brexit this week.

Sterling fell in early trade on Monday but later erased most of its losses, trading at $1.2999 before midday.

The UK’s tortuous crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an extraordinary array of options including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.

The ultimate outcome remains unclear, though most diplomats and investors say Brexit will define the UK’s prosperity for generations to come.

The deadlocked talks effectively open up the prospect of either a last-minute deal, probably around the time of an EU summit on March 21-22, or a delay to Brexit.

The British Parliament rejected May’s deal by 230 votes on January 15, prompting her to return to Brussels in search of changes to the so-called Irish backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Many British MPs object to the policy on the grounds that it could leave Britain subject to EU rules indefinitely and cleave Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK. But the EU has repeatedly said it does not want to reopen the divorce deal, officially known as the "withdrawal agreement", and the British government’s top lawyer has failed to find a legal fix.

May offered MPs a “meaningful” vote on what she had hoped would be a revised deal on Tuesday but with no major changes yet secured, Brexit-supporting legislators warned it would be defeated again.

Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up May’s minority government, and Steve Baker, a leading figure in the large eurosceptic faction of her Conservative Party, said she was heading for defeat.

If her deal is defeated, May has pledged to give MPs a vote on Wednesday on leaving without a deal on March 29 and, if they reject that, then they will vote on Thursday on delaying Brexit.

May’s spokesperson said she was focused on making progress on a deal that parliament could approve and was committed to holding three Brexit votes this week. But Yvette Cooper, an opposition party MP who has led efforts to hand parliament more control over Brexit, said parliament would try to take control of the exit process if May was unable to build a consensus.

Michael Gove, who campaigned for Brexit in 2016, said if May lost Tuesday’s vote the government would effectively lose control of Brexit.

In Brussels, diplomats and officials said Britain would face EU demands for billions of euros in cash if it fails to strike a Brexit deal.

Reuters