British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech in central London on May 21 2019. Picture: KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH//AFP
British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech in central London on May 21 2019. Picture: KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH//AFP

London — Prime Minister Theresa May set out on Tuesday a “new deal” for Britain’s departure from the European Union, offering sweeteners to opposition parties in her fourth attempt to break an impasse in parliament over Brexit.

Three years since Britain voted to leave the EU and almost two months after the planned departure date, May is mounting a final bid to try to get the deeply divided parliament’s backing for a divorce deal, to leave office with some kind of legacy.

Sterling gained as much as 0.7% ahead of May’s speech before paring the move. MPs have already voted against holding a second referendum in a series of votes on Brexit options.

The odds do not look good. Despite offering what she described as “significant further changes”, many MPs, hardened in their positions, have already decided not to vote in June for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, legislation which implements the terms of Britain’s departure.

Speaking at the headquarters of PwC in London, May appealed to MPs to get behind her deal, offering the prospect of a possible second referendum on the agreement and closer trading arrangements with the EU as incentives.

“I say with conviction to every MP or every party: I have compromised, now I ask you to compromise,” she said. “We have been given a clear instruction by the people we are supposed to represent, so help me find a way to honour that instruction, move our country and our politics and build the better future that all of us want to see.”

By offering the possibility of holding a second vote on her deal and a compromise on customs arrangements, May hopes to win over opposition Labour MPs, whose votes she needs to overcome resistance to the deal in her own Conservative Party.

But she will infuriate Brexit-supporting MPs, who have described a customs union with the EU as no Brexit at all.

 Conservative Simon Clarke  said he had backed her deal during the third failed attempt in parliament, “but this speech from the PM means there is no way I will support the Withdrawal Agreement Bill”.

“So if we pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at 2nd reading, we allow a Remain Parliament to insist upon a 2nd referendum and a Customs Union? This is outrageous,” he said on Twitter.

Concessions

Her movement towards what many describe as the “Remain” MPs, who want to stay in the EU, is a shift for a prime minister who has long said she is against a second referendum and staying in a customs union with the bloc. She may be counting on the fact that parliament has yet to vote in favour of a second referendum and that a “temporary” customs union might just be weak enough for some in her party to accept.

But it signals how her earlier strategy, to keep Brexit supporters on board, has failed. The question is whether the concessions will be enough to convince Labour to get on board.

Earlier, John McDonnell, Labour’s finance policy chief, cast doubt on whether it could win the party’s support, saying what he had seen so far “doesn’t inspire confidence, and I don’t think that many of our members will be inspired by it”.

Brexit-supporting Conservatives were equally unconvinced.

“Her bold new offer of the WAB will be a further dilution through Labour-sponsored amendments which will make her already unacceptable withdrawal agreement even more unpalatable,” said Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative MP.  “A prime minister heading for the exit desperate to salvage something from her premiership regardless of the cost to our democracy, our country and the Conservative Party.”

May wants to get her withdrawal deal, agreed with the EU last November, through parliament, so, as promised, she can leave office having at least finalised the first part of Britain’s departure and prevented a “no deal” Brexit, an abrupt departure that many businesses fear will create an economic shock.

Finance minister Philip Hammond rammed the point home in parliament on Tuesday when he said a no-deal Brexit would leave Britain poorer. He is expected to send the same message to business leaders in a speech later in the day.

“The 2016 Leave campaign was clear that we would leave with a deal,” he will say, according to advance extracts. “So to advocate for ‘no deal’ is to hijack the result of the referendum, and in doing so, knowingly to inflict damage on our economy and our living standards. Because all the preparation in the world will not avoid the consequences of no deal.”

Reuters