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May Buys off Tory Remainer Rebels With Option to Delay Brexit

Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, departs number 10 Downing Street on her way to make a statement in Parliament in London on Feb. 26, 2019. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Theresa May bought off Remainer rebels in her ministerial team with the promise of votes to rule out a no-deal Brexit and delay the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.

Addressing lawmakers in Parliament on Tuesday, the premier said she’ll continue attempts to reach a deal in Brussels so the U.K. can leave as planned March 29. But if that isn’t possible, Britain won’t lurch out of the bloc without Parliament’s agreement, she said. The pound surged.

“The United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome,” May told the House of Commons.

The option of a delay is a significant climb-down for the prime minister. But her tactical move looks to have averted mass resignations of pro-EU ministers in her team, and prevented the crushing defeat that almost certainly awaited her in Parliament on Wednesday.

There’s also a chance her gamble could encourage pro-Brexit politicians to get behind her unpopular exit agreement. With Labour now backing a second referendum, and May opening the door to a delay, the prospect of losing Brexit altogether could convince at least some of euroskeptic Tories to get on board.

Voting Stages

May promised a vote on a new Brexit deal by March 12 at the latest. If it’s rejected, there will be a vote by March 13 at the latest on whether to leave the EU with no deal. And if that option is rejected, the Commons will vote on a short extension to the March 29 deadline — probably until the end of June at the latest.

While euroskeptics have been instrumental in forcing the premier’s approach in recent months, it was the pro-Europeans who succeeded Tuesday, with May worried that as many as 20 ministers were preparing to rebel on Wednesday to force her to rule out a no-deal Brexit and take control of the process out of her hands.

May’s scored her victory in a tense and at times angry meeting of her Cabinet on Tuesday morning. The trio of ministers who threatened a revolt to stop a no-deal Brexit were attacked for disloyalty by their colleagues, people familiar with the meeting said. But now Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke are all satisfied with May’s promises and will not rebel, the people said.

Read more: With Confrontation Averted, U.K. Brexit Vote Likely to Be Dull

There were signs also that junior ministers who had also been preparing to rebel were pacified by the promised votes.

“Common sense has prevailed, and the country’s interest has been put first,” Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood said in an interview. “But crashing out has only been temporarily avoided, and there is still much work to be done to guarantee the threat of a no-deal Brexit is removed.”

In other Brexit developments:

The government published its motion for debate on Wednesday, and lawmakers began submitting amendments to it — including attempts to force May to stick to her pledges on Tuesday and to wrest control of the Parliamentary calendar from her. The Brexit department published an assessment of no-deal preparations, finding little evidence that businesses are preparing in earnest for a no deal scenario.” Attorney General Geoffrey Cox held meetings in Brussels to work on legally binding assurances to make the withdrawal deal acceptable to U.K. lawmakers.

May made it clear during the two-hour session in the House of Commons that she does not want to extend the EU’s negotiating deadline and still aims to get an agreement in Brussels by the end of March.

“I know Members across the House are genuinely worried that time is running out,” she said. “I know too that members across the House are deeply concerned by the effect of the current uncertainty on businesses.”

May and her team emphasized that any delay will be for the shortest possible time, because otherwise the U.K. would need to take part in European Parliament elections — and that would be a betrayal of the 2016 referendum result. However, parts of the EU are pushing for any delay to be as long as 21 months.

“A short extension — not beyond the end of June — would almost certainly have to be a one-off,” May said. DM

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