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U.K.’s May Wins Confidence Vote, Still Faces Impasse Over Brexit

A handout video-grabbed still image from a video made available by UK parliament's parliamentary recording unit shows British Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn (L) and Labour Party's Deputy Leader MP Tom Watson reacting after Prime Minister Theresa May won the vote of no confidence in the House of Commons in London, Britain, 16 January 2019. Britain's Prime Minister May faced a confidence vote in parliament after she lost the The Meaningful Vote parliamentary vote on the EU withdrawal agreement on 15 January. EPA-EFE/PARLIAMENTARY RECORDING UNIT HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT: PARLIAMENTARY RECORDING UNIT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
By Bloomberg
16 Jan 2019 0

U.K. leader Theresa May narrowly survived an attempt to oust her government after a crushing defeat for her Brexit plan.

The prime minister fought off the threat of an immediate national election and won the right to continue running the country when the House of Commons voted 325 to 306 against a motion of “no confidence” in her administration. The pound was little changed after a short rally as the outcome was expected.

On finding out she won, May invited other party leaders to meet as soon as tonight to talk about the way forward. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the socialist main opposition Labour party, said May must rule out a no-deal Brexit as a pre-condition for those discussions.

May’s spokesman later told reporters the prime minister was not taking no deal off the table.

“The government approaches these meetings in a constructive spirit, and I urge others to do the same,” May told lawmakers. “But we must find solutions that are negotiable and command sufficient support in this House.”

The slim margin of May’s victory was not a surprise as she has no overall majority in the Commons and relies on support from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her government.

While the result brings short-term respite for May, the U.K. remains locked in a political crisis over its divorce from the European Union, with no deal in sight and just 10 weeks until the country is due to exit the bloc.

Defeated Plan

In a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, May’s blueprint for exiting the EU was resoundingly rejected by 230 votes — the worst parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British history. While pro-Brexit hardliners backed her in the confidence vote, they will be quick to denounce any attempts she makes to find a compromise that maintains close ties to the bloc. The support of her Northern Irish allies is also conditional on a radical overhaul of her deal.

If Parliament fails to approve a Brexit deal, the U.K. will fall out of the EU on March 29 without any new agreement in place. British authorities warn that this could trigger a recession, with the pound falling as much as 25 percent and house prices taking as much as a 30 percent hit.

British and EU officials are increasingly convinced the U.K. will need to delay Brexit day, though May has so far refused publicly to consider that option.

“We are living through a historic moment in our nation’s history,” May said as she asked the Commons to back her government on Wednesday. “Following a referendum that divided our nation in half, we dearly need to bring our country back together.”

‘Zombie Government’

Corbyn proposed the no-confidence vote after May’s Brexit deal suffered the biggest parliamentary defeat for at least 100 years. He said she’s now running a “zombie government.”

The Labour leader said the country needed a fresh election to install a Labour government that would bring “fresh ideas” for tackling low pay rates for workers, a crumbling healthcare service, and state-funded education. “A general election would give new impetus to negotiations, with a new prime minister,” he said.

Despite deep divisions in May’s Conservative party over Brexit, her colleagues — and their DUP partners — rallied to her defense, voting to keep the government in power. While they can’t agree on the best way to take the U.K. out of the EU, Conservative and DUP politicians are united in their determination to stop Corbyn forming a government.

Quagmire

The prime minister’s focus now turns to trying to find a way through the Brexit quagmire. After the deal she’s spend almost two years negotiating with the EU was resoundingly rejected, May will now open talks with rival parties in the hope of finding a blueprint that Parliament can agree to support.

A spokesman for Corbyn said May’s refusal to ditch the threat of a no-deal Brexit amounted to “blackmail,” and also called on the prime minister to remove her “red lines” on a customs union with the EU.

The prime minister is approaching those discussions with a set of principles on Brexit, a U.K. official told reporters later, adding she’d never used the term “red lines.”

Time is running short. May must return to Parliament to set out her Plan B by Monday. According to a person familiar with the matter, the premier is also urgently lining up calls with EU leaders to discuss the next steps.

It’s unclear how much help the EU can be. The bloc is willing to extend the Article 50 negotiating period beyond the summer to find a deal if necessary, according to diplomats. But on Wednesday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said there’s no way to remove the need for the most contentious part of the agreement — the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border. DM

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