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May’s divorce deal back from the dead

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement could yet return from the dead if hardcore Brexiteers fear a delay could produce a softer Brexit than the deal they despise.

MPs rejected Theresa May's deal for a second time
MPs rejected Theresa May’s deal for a second time

The divorce deal was rejected by a thumping majority in parliament in January, and again by a lesser, but still overwhelming margin on Tuesday.

But May is set to bring it back from the grave for a third vote by Wednesday, hoping that Brexiteers will finally blink when faced with the alternatives.

MPs on Thursday authorised May to seek a delay to Brexit from March 29 until June 30 — or longer if no deal can be agreed in the coming days.

The prospect of a postponed, watered-down or even cancelled Brexit via another referendum is sharpening minds.

Some anti-deal figureheads — notably former Brexit secretary David Davis — have already switched course, backing the withdrawal agreement on Tuesday in fear of worse.

Because Brexiteers who have not backed May’s deal “are faced with this increasingly clear choice of a longer extension, the government hopes that Mrs May’s deal becomes increasingly attractive to those MPs”, said Alan Wager, a research associate at King’s College London.

“So none of it will be re-opened, none of it will be changed, there’ll be nothing added or taken away,” Wager, who works with the UK in a Changing Europe research group, told AFP.

“The only thing that will have changed is that you’ve got closer to that March 29 deadline and the options have become a lot clearer for those pro-Brexit MPs.”

– Path of least resistance –

The spotlight is on the European Research Group (ERG) of hardcore Brexiteers — the rebels in May’s Conservative Party — plus the Conservatives’ allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who are also pro-Brexit and oppose the deal.

Brexit-backing newspaper The Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling daily, said in its editorial: “It is now surely obvious to Tory Brexiteers that defeating Theresa May’s deal again will be a disastrous act of self-harm.

“Some are waking up to it. Too many are holding out for something better. It’s not coming.

“May’s shock victories last night leave her battered agreement as still somehow the only viable option.”

ERG and DUP support, improbably, remains May’s safest route to a Brexit deal rather than reaching out to the opposition benches, which are also divided into various factions.

David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, said the virtue of the deal was that it is ready to go, agreed by the British government and the 27 other EU states.

“For that reason, I hope that MPs of all parties will be, over this weekend, just reflecting on the way forward,” he told BBC radio.

– Grand gamble –

One proposal being advanced by Labour backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson would see the main opposition party lend enough votes to back May’s deal, on the provision that Britain then has an all-or-nothing referendum: the deal versus remaining in the EU.

Philip Collins, a centre-left columnist for The Times who used to be Labour prime minister Tony Blair’s chief speechwriter, said the plan had enough in it to tempt both the Labour and Conservative leaderships.

For May, “there lies the very attraction of the gamble. It raises the stakes. It says to the hardliners: your prize is on the line,” he wrote.

“You either… vote for the deal or else we are heading out to the country. It’s the deal without a referendum or the deal with. Your call.” AFP