British PM May to face no-confidence vote

Beleaguered leader Theresa May vows to contest ballot triggered by fellow Conservative Party MPs.

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    London, United Kingdom - British Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to fight for her political future with "everything I've got" as the UK's bid to depart the European Union descends into a deepening political crisis.

    Members of May's ruling Conservative Party on Wednesday reached the threshold of 48 demands needed to trigger a no-confidence vote in her leadership.

    Their move came fewer than two days after the prime minister and party leader opted to pull a parliamentary vote on her widely maligned Brexit deal, acknowledging that it would have been defeated.

    Wednesday's poll will be held in secret within the House of Commons between 18:00 and 20:00 GMT. A result is expected to be announced shortly after.

    May must win majority support among the Conservatives' 317 members of parliament (MPs) to survive the vote. Failure to do so means she will be forced to resign as party leader and will likely set out a date for standing down as prime minister.

    She would be expected to stay on as interim prime minister until the Conservatives elect a new leader, a process that could take up to six weeks.

    In a statement to reporters on Wednesday, May vowed to "contest the vote with everything I've got".

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    The 62-year-old cautioned any new prime minister would need to scrap or extend Article 50 - the exit clause in the EU's constitution - "delaying or even stopping Brexit".

    "A change of leadership in the Conservative Party now would put our future at risk and create uncertainty when we can least afford it," she said.

    About 52 percent of Britons voted to quit the EU in a divisive June 2016 referendum.

    The UK is now poised to leave the bloc on March 29 next year, two years after it triggered Article 50 and kick-started negotiations with European leaders over a divorce deal.

    A divided party

    May is under considerable pressure from Eurosceptic elements of her party who argue that her withdrawal plan fails to deliver a clean break from Brussels.

    MP and Chair of the pro-Brexit parliamentary backbench European Research Group Jacob Rees Mogg said on Wednesday it was time for a "new leader" and called on May to "resign".

    But several government ministers were quick to express support for May following the announcement of the no-confidence vote.

    Chancellor Philip Hammond pledged to back May, saying she had "worked hard in the national interest since the day she took office".

    "Her deal means we leave the EU on time, whilst protecting our jobs and our businesses," Hammond said in a tweet.

    Environment Minister Michael Gove, a prominent Leave campaigner during the 2016 referendum, also vowed to support May and urged "every Conservative MP to do the same". 

    "She is battling hard for our country and no one is better placed to ensure we deliver on the British people's decision to leave the EU," he said.

    Analysts described predicting the outcome of the vote as a "fool's errand" but suggested the odds appeared to be narrowly in May's favour.

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    "The view amongst many Conservative MPs that now is the wrong time to change leader still carries significant weight. But the vote is a secret ballot, so not all those MPs who are publicly professing their support will necessarily do so in private," Dominic Walsh, a policy analyst at the non-partisan independent policy think-tank Open Europe, said.

    "If she wins, her position will be stronger than it is now, but still relatively weak. It will expose divisions in the Conservative Party even further and will do almost nothing to change either the parliamentary arithmetic on the Brexit deal or the reluctance of the EU to renegotiate," he added.

    Specialist Brexit researcher at the UK's Institute for Government, Maddy Thimont Jack, meanwhile, said Wednesday's confidence vote could radically reshape Brexit dynamics if May were to be defeated.

    "There are two very strong wings of the Conservative Party with very different priorities … we could end up in a position where there's quite a hard Brexiteer prime minister who might want to head down the no-deal path," Thimont Jack said.

    "Or we might end up with someone who wants to have a much softer and closer relationship with the EU," she added.

    As of yet, no Conservative MP has put themselves forward as a possible replacement for May.

    European tour

    May, who has been prime minister since shortly after the UK opted to leave the EU, has faced widespread criticism from within her own party and across the political spectrum over her proposed divorce deal from the bloc.

    At the heart of the ongoing contention is the plan's "backstop" proposal, a safety net provision which guarantees no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the event that post-Brexit trade negotiations between the UK and the EU prove unsuccessful.

    The clause proposes that the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, remain in a customs union with the EU "unless and until" the bloc agrees there is no prospect of a return to a hard border.

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    Critics in the UK parliament argue that the measure could tie Britain into the EU's orbit indefinitely.

    On Tuesday, May undertook a whistle-stop tour of several European cities aimed at seeking "further assurances" from EU leaders on the backstop plan after cancelling the parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal a day before.

    Announcing the postponement in the Commons on Monday, she acknowledged her plan would have been roundly rejected by the house.

    EU leaders, however, have warned there is no room for negotiation on the withdrawal agreement, brokered after months of back-and-forth discussions between Brussels and London.

    On Tuesday, the European Parliament's lead Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said May's decision to delay the parliamentary vote and return to Brussels demonstrated Brexit had become a "mess".

    "My two messages: we'll never let down Ireland; it's out of the question to renegotiate the backstop & if you are looking for a closer future relationship to avoid the backstop, this will be no problem w/ us," Verhofstadt said in a tweet.

    Also on Tuesday, a spokesperson for May said her postponed parliamentary vote would be rescheduled for before January 21 next year, allaying fears the British leader might seek to run the clock down and schedule a last minute poll on her deal on the eve of Britain's departure from the EU.

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    Meanwhile, a grouping of opposition parties, including the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats, have called on the main opposition Labour Party to follow through with an earlier threat to table a no-confidence motion against May.

    A Labour spokesperson said on Monday the party would "put down a motion of no confidence when we judge it most likely to be successful", with no such action expected to take place until after a parliamentary vote on the British leader's deal.

    The ongoing turmoil has seen the pound plunge against the dollar and the euro as fears of a potentially harmful no-deal Brexit spook markets.

    The Bank of England, the UK's central bank, has warned that departing without a withdrawal agreement  could cause the UK's gross domestic product (GDP) to shrink by up to eight percent.

    The government, meanwhile, has forecast a potential economic slump of more than nine percent in such a scenario.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News