Theresa May. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/DAN KITWOOD
Theresa May. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/DAN KITWOOD

London — British Prime Minister Theresa May’s final Brexit gambit was in tatters on Wednesday after her offer of a vote on a second referendum and closer trading arrangements failed to win over either opposition law makers or many in her own party.

Nearly three years since Britain voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU, May is trying one last time to get her divorce deal approved by the British parliament before her crisis-riven premiership ends.

May again appealed to law makers get behind her, offering the prospect of a possible second referendum on the agreement and closer trading arrangements with the EU as incentives to what she called the only way to prevent a no deal Brexit.

But the backlash was fierce. Both ruling Conservative and opposition Labour law makers criticised May’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill, legislation that implements the terms of Britain’s departure. Some upped efforts to oust her and there were reports that her own ministers could move against her.

The impasse in London means it is unclear how, when or even if Britain will leave the European club it joined in 1973. The current deadline to leave is October 31.

Despite the criticism, May stood firm, urging law makers to back the bill and then have a chance to make changes to it, so they can have more control over the final shape of Brexit.

“In time, another prime minister will be standing at this dispatch box,” May said, acknowledging that her time as prime minister is drawing to a close. “But while I am here, I have a duty to be clear with the House [of Commons] about the facts. If we are going to deliver Brexit in this parliament we are going to have to pass a Withdrawal Agreement Bill,” she told parliament, where many of her critics left the chamber allowing some of her backers to offer support for her argument to pass the bill.

Asked by eurosceptic law maker Jacob Rees-Mogg whether she really believed in the new deal she had proposed or whether she was simply going through the motions, May said: “I don’t think I would have been standing here at the dispatch box and be in receipt of some of the comments I have been in receipt of from colleagues on my own side and across the house if I didn't believe in what I was doing.”

‘Got to go’

Britain’s crisis over Brexit has stunned allies and foes alike, and with deadlock in London, the world’s fifth largest economy faces an array of options including an exit with a deal to smooth the transition, a no-deal exit, an election, or a second referendum.

The pound was on track for its longest ever losing streak against the euro as some traders said they saw the rising chance of a no-deal Brexit. Those fears pushed investors into the relatively safety of government bonds — particularly those that offer protection against a spike in inflation.

Despite the signs of some support in a near empty parliament, her move towards law makers who want to stay in the EU incensed many in her party.

“The proposed second reading of the bill is clearly doomed to failure so there really is no point wasting any more time on the prime minister’s forlorn hope of salvation,” Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative law maker, told Reuters. “She’s got to go.”

More Conservative law makers handed over letters to the 1922 Committee, a Conservative group that can make or break party leaders, to demand a no-confidence vote in May, whose strategy to leave the EU has been left in tatters. Local reporters said there were rumours that cabinet ministers were starting a move against her.

Asked about the pressure to resign, her spokesperson said: “The prime minister is focused on the job in hand, and what the last 24 hours or so have proved, it is a big one.”

Several law makers, including Labour’s Brexit policy chief Keir Starmer, said there was little point holding next month’s vote on her bill, which most agreed had no chance of passing a deeply divided parliament.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, said his party would not be backing the bill and described the government as “too weak, too divided to get this country out of the mess that they have created”. 

Reuters