Britain’s exit from the European Union was heading for an impasse, one senior minister said on Saturday, after a week in which Prime Minister Theresa May failed to win EU assurances on her deal and pulled a vote because UK lawmakers would defeat it.
With just over 100 days until Britain leaves the bloc on March 29, Brexit remains up in the air with growing calls for a no-deal exit, a potentially disorderly divorce that business fears would be highly damaging, or for a second referendum.
May pulled a vote on her deal on Monday after acknowledging it would be heavily defeated over concerns about the “backstop”, an insurance policy designed to avoid any hard land border for Ireland but which critics say could bind Britain to EU rules indefinitely.
Two days later, she survived a plot to oust her from those in her own party who support a hardline Brexit, showing the level of opposition she faced.
May herself has acknowledged that Britain’s parliament appears deadlocked with no clear support for any option, with the small Northern Irish party that props up her government leading the criticism of her deal.
“Brexit is in danger of getting stuck – and that is something that should worry us all,” pensions minister Amber Rudd wrote in Saturday’s Daily Mail newspaper.
“If MPs (lawmakers) dig in against the prime minister’s deal and then hunker down in their different corners, none with a majority, the country will face serious trouble.”
At a summit in Brussels, May’s attempts to get legal assurances from the EU that the Irish backstop would only be a temporary measure was rebuffed with the bloc’s other 27 leaders saying they would not renegotiate the treaty.
However, May insisted at the summit’s conclusion on Friday that further clarification was still possible with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying: “We want to be helpful.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said parliament could still rally behind May’s agreement with additional assurances and said such clarifications were likely because EU countries knew no deal would be a disaster for them.
“When the dust has settled, the only way we’re going to get this through the House of Commons ... is to have a version of the deal that the government has negotiated,” Hunt told BBC radio. “I don’t think the EU could be remotely sure that if we don’t find a way through this we wouldn’t end up with no deal.”
May’s senior ministers are also deeply divided over what to do if her plan fails. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Hunt indicated that he would be happy for Britain to leave without a deal.
“I’ve always thought that even in a no-deal situation this is a great country, we’ll find a way to flourish and prosper. We’ve faced much bigger challenges in our history,” Hunt was quoted as saying.
Rudd - one of five ministers who, according to newspapers, are leaning towards having a second referendum - said a no-deal scenario “mustn’t be allowed to happen” and urged lawmakers from all parties come together to stop it.
“We need to try something different. Something that people do in the real world all the time, but which seems so alien in our political culture – to engage with others,” she said.
“We need to acknowledge the risk that parliament could spend the next precious few months debating about preferred solutions and end up with no compromise, no agreement and no deal.”
One senior minister told Reuters on Friday that the risk of a “managed” no-deal Brexit was rising as was the likelihood of a second vote on EU membership, saying there was no “plan B” that lawmakers would back.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a leading pro-EU advocate, said on Friday that a referendum was now the most likely outcome to break the stalemate, a view shared by ardent Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
“We’re actually becoming more divided on this subject than perhaps we were two-and-a-half years ago and that’s why I think a second referendum gets closer,” Farage told BBC TV. “I hate the thought of it, but I tell you what, I’m going to spend every minute getting ready for it.”
Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Louise Heavens and Daniel Wallis