London, United Kingdom – British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced members of parliament will vote on her widely criticised Brexit deal in the week beginning January 14 next year.
In a statement to parliament on Monday, May also rejected growing demands for a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, warning it would “further divide” the country and “break faith” with the British people.
The 62-year-old dismissed calls from leading public figures, including former prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major, for a rerun of the 2016 vote suggesting it would do “irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics”.
“It would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver,” May said. “Another vote which would likely leave us no further forward than the last.”
Nearly 52 percent of Britons – more than 17 million people – voted to leave the EU during a divisive referendum held in June 2016. Turnout for the poll was more than 72 percent.
The UK is now set to leave the 28-member bloc on March 29 next year, two years after it triggered Article 50 – the exit clause in the EU’s constitution – and kick-started negotiations with European leaders over a divorce deal.
But May’s proposed deal, brokered after months of back-and-forth between London and Brussels, has proved widely unpopular among parliamentarians.
Last week, she pulled a so-called “meaningful vote” on the plan, acknowledging it would have been roundly rejected by the UK’s lower chamber House of Commons.
The move triggered disgruntled Eurosceptic Conservative MPs to move for a vote of confidence on her leadership, which she narrowly survived in a secret ballot on December 12.
In an effort to assuage critics from within her own party and across the political spectrum, May attended an EU Council summit in Brussels the following day, where she pleaded with her counterparts in the bloc to make concessions on the UK-EU withdrawal agreement’s contentious “Irish backstop” clause.
EU officials refused to blink, however, and maintained that no amendments to the deal would be forthcoming.
But on Monday, May told parliament she had won private assurances from her European counterparts at the Brussels summit that there was “no plot” to keep the UK in the backstop and that they wanted to avoid having to activate the safety net provision – which would guarantee no hard border is erected on the island of Ireland in the event that post-Brexit trade negotiations between the UK and the bloc prove unsuccessful.
“I know this is not everyone’s perfect deal. It is a compromise. But if we let the perfect be the enemy of the good then we risk leaving the EU with no deal,” May said.
“Avoiding no deal is only possible if we can reach an agreement or if we abandon Brexit entirely,” she added.
Leader of the main opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, accused May of “achieving nothing” at the EU Council meeting and leading the UK into a “national crisis”.
“She has not made any progress at all… The deal is unchanged and not going to change,” Corbyn told the Commons on Monday in his response to May’s speech.
“The prime minister has cynically run down the clock and tried to manoeuvre parliament into a choice between two unacceptable outcomes: her deal or no deal,” he added.
In a bid to force a vote on her Brexit deal this week, Corbyn said he would table a motion of no confidence in May as prime minister.
Crucially, the motion does not call for a confidence vote in the government as a whole, meaning May’s administration is not obliged to set aside parliamentary time to debate it.
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Analysts, meanwhile, agreed May’s approach was aimed at funnelling the multi-faceted Brexit debate into a two-way choice come January.
“She [May] is going to try and make this a choice between her deal and no deal and say ‘you have no alternative, you might not like what I’m offering but you like the only other pathway [a no-deal departure] even less, so choose the lesser of two evils’,” Simon Usherwood, a reader in politics at the University of Surrey and deputy director of the UK in a Changing Europe group, said.
The ongoing parliamentary standoff between May and opponents of her deal from across the political spectrum, including from within her own party, has raised the prospect that MPs will veto her withdrawal proposal come January.
Thomas Cole, head of policy at the pro-second referendum People’s Vote campaign, said it would be “perfectly legitimate” for the British public to have a second say on Brexit given the parliamentary gridlock.
“It’s weighing up the promises that were made in 2016 with reality now. We all now know what’s on the table and what’s on offer. We can weigh that up with what we would say is the best deal the UK already has and that is as an EU member inside the EU,” Cole told Al Jazeera.
“It’s clear that the promises that were made in 2016 by the leave campaign have not materialised – there’s not going to be these amazing new trade deals ready to go on day one when we leave the EU, nobody spoke about a transition period back in the 2016 campaign, and the issue of the Irish land border was rarely if ever discussed at all,” he added.
According to a recent poll by market research and data analytics firm YouGov, 55 percent of UK voters are in favour of a referendum on the proposed terms of the country’s departure from the EU.
Meanwhile, some 53 percent of Britons are now in favour of remaining in the bloc, according to data gathered by the UK’s National Centre for Social Research.
But Usherwood cautioned that another referendum could worsen the political divide currently racking Britain.
“You’re likely to have all of the same problems as you had with the 2016 referendum [in the event of a second vote] – about which question you’re asking voters and which choice you’re offering,” he said.
“Also you have to assume that people are not that interested in the detail of what’s going on and there’s a whole lot of exasperation at this still not being at a conclusion.”