London: British Prime Minister Theresa May faces crushing defeat in a historic vote on Tuesday over the Brexit deal she has struck with the European Union, leaving the world’s fifth biggest economy in limbo.
With just over two months to go until the scheduled Brexit date of March 29, Britain is still bitterly divided over how and even whether it should split away from the bloc’s other 27 nations. The only suspense is over the scale of May’s defeat.
The British leader’s last-minute appeals to MPs appear to have fallen on deaf ears and how much she loses by could determine whether she tries again, gets kicked out of office, delays Brexit -- or if Brexit even happens at all.
“You are not children in the playground, you are legislators,” Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, representing the government, told MPs just before the vote. Cox warned that the current deal would have to return “in much the same form with much the same content” for another vote if this one failed.
Hundreds of noisy and excited supporters and opponents of Brexit, some banging drums and others holding up huge dolls mocking top UK politicians, rallied outside parliament while the closing debates raged on inside.
“It could end up being the day that will lead to us leaving with no deal!” said 25-year-old Simon Fisher, who was rallying in front of the building to back a harder Brexit.
Others voiced their support for a second referendum.
Opposition to the agreement forced May to postpone the vote in December in the hope of winning concessions from Brussels. EU leaders have offered only a series of clarifications, but German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Strasbourg on Tuesday raised the possibility of further talks while ruling out a full re-negotiation of the text.
“I am sceptical that the agreement can be fundamentally reopened once again,” Maas said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker returned to Brussels from Strasbourg on Tuesday “to handle the situation after the vote,” according to his office.
Hardline Brexiteers and Remainers oppose the agreement for different reasons and many fear it could lock Britain into an unfavourable trading relationship with the EU.
Debates about Britain’s place in the world have raged since a 2016 referendum pushed the UK away from its closest trading partner -- dividing families and confounding politicians ahead of the momentous vote.
“The only good deal is a dead Brexit,” said one placard brandished outside parliament.
“No Deal? No Problem!” another countered.
Financial markets were also watching the result closely, with several currency trading companies roping in extra staff for the vote and at least one putting a cap on trades to avoid excessive currency movements.
The pound was trading lower against the euro and the dollar ahead of the vote but analysts predicted the fall could be far sharper depending on the scale of defeat.
“Today’s vote is a foregone conclusion so sterling is unlikely to move significantly,” said Rebecca O’Keeffe, an analyst with online trader Interactive Investor.
“The fireworks will happen after today -- when it is clear what happens next,” she said.
Criticism of the deal is focused on an arrangement to keep open the border with Ireland by aligning Britain with some EU trade rules, if and until London and Brussels sign a new economic partnership which could take several years.
Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, upon which May relies for her Commons majority, told the BBC his party would not be forced into backing the deal by fears over the border.
“We fought (against) a terrorist campaign (in order) to stay part of the United Kingdom,” he said, evoking Northern Ireland’s past conflict.
“We are not going to allow bureaucrats in Brussels to separate us from the rest of the United Kingdom.”
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said May must call an election if she loses on Tuesday and has threatened to hold a confidence vote in her government if she does not.
In the event of a defeat, the government must set out what happens next by Monday.
House speaker John Bercow selected four amendments to be voted on, but scuppered the government’s attempts to win over those worried about the backstop by rejecting a proposal that would have sought to impose a time limit.
Speculation is growing on both sides of the Channel that May could ask to delay Brexit.
But a diplomatic source told AFP any extension would not be possible beyond June 30, when the new European Parliament will be formed.
The withdrawal agreement includes plans for a post-Brexit transition period until a new relationship is drawn up, in return for continued budget contributions from London.
Without it, and if there is no delay, Britain will sever 46 years of ties with its nearest neighbours with no agreement to ease the blow.