By Andrew MacAskill and William James
LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May failed to win over the Northern Irish party which props up her government to her Brexit deal on Wednesday, just hours before lawmakers were due to resume a debate on the divorce accord.
The future of Brexit remains deeply uncertain – with options ranging from a disorderly exit from the European Union to another membership referendum – because British lawmakers are expected on Jan. 15 to vote down the deal May struck with the EU in November.
May pulled a vote on the deal last month, admitting it would be defeated, and promised to seek “legal and political assurances” from the EU.
But the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said it would not support the deal unless May dropped a part known as the backstop which is aimed at preventing a hard border between the British province and EU-member Ireland if both sides fail to clinch a future trade deal.
“The only thing which could swing the DUP round is if the backstop as it applies to the United Kingdom as a whole or to Northern Ireland specifically were removed from this agreement,” said Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman.
Wilson, who is among 10 DUP lawmakers propping up May’s minority government, cast as “window dressing” her proposals to give the Northern Irish assembly the power to vote against new EU rules if the border backstop comes into force after Brexit.
Her deal, he said, was “ruinous”. Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 at 2300 GMT.
May has repeatedly ruled out delaying Brexit, though she has also warned British lawmakers that if they reject her deal then Brexit could be derailed or the United Kingdom could leave without a deal.
The government needs 318 votes to get a deal through parliament as seven Sinn Fein lawmakers do not sit, four speakers and deputy speaker do not vote and the four tellers are not counted.
May’s de-facto deputy cautioned lawmakers that it was a delusion to think the government would be able to negotiate a new divorce deal with the EU if parliament voted down her deal.
“I don’t think the British public are served by fantasies about magical, alternative deals that are somehow going to spring out of a cupboard in Brussels,” Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said in an interview with BBC radio.
May’s government suffered a defeat in parliament on Tuesday when lawmakers who oppose leaving without a deal won a vote on creating a new obstacle to a no-deal Brexit.
The 303 to 296 defeat means the government needs explicit parliamentary approval to leave the EU without a deal before it can use certain powers relating to taxation law. May’s office had earlier played down the technical impact of defeat.
The defeat highlights May’s weak position as leader of a minority government, a split party and a deeply divided country as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the club it joined in 1973.
Lidington said the vote showed that many lawmakers do not want a no deal but he cautioned that it was not enough to show simply what lawmakers did not want. Without an alternative, he said, the default position would be leaving without a deal.
Some investors and major banks believe May’s deal will be defeated on Tuesday but that eventually it will be approved.
The ultimate Brexit outcome will shape Britain’s $2.8 trillion economy, have far-reaching consequences for the unity of the United Kingdom and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top two global financial centers.
(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Janet Lawrence)