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Brexit vote set for Jan 15 amid talk of delay

LONDON: British MPs will vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal on Jan 15, the government said on Tuesday, while denying growing speculation it might seek to delay Brexit if the agreement is rejected.

May postponed an initial vote last month in the face of opposition from all sides of the House of Commons, but has now set it for next Tuesday evening after 1900 GMT, following five days of debate which start on Wednesday.

May is still struggling to convince both opposition lawmakers and her own Conservative party to back the divorce agreement, heightening fears Britain could leave the European Union on March 29 without a deal.

She has promised to secure further assurances from the EU on the most controversial elements of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland, and has held talks with European leaders in recent days. “The work to secure those assurances is ongoing,” her spokes­man said, adding that the prime minister hoped to have something to offer MPs before next week’s vote.

May is hosting several drinks parties for lawmakers this week in a bid to win them round, arguing her deal is the best compromise that ends EU membership while protecting jobs.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove told cabinet colleagues that critics holding out for a better deal were like swingers in their mid-50s waiting for Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson to turn up on a date.

A source in Brussels told AFP several weeks ago that Britain has been discussing the possibility with European officials, and a junior British minister, Margot James, publicly voiced the idea on Monday. But May’s spokesman insisted: “We will not be extending Article 50. There are people in the European Union who are discussing this issue, but that is not the position of the UK government.”

An EU diplomat also told AFP that the idea of delaying Brexit “is a very hypothetical option”. Any extension to Britain’s departure would be complicated by the elections to the European Parliament in May. After Brexit, it will no longer be represented in the assembly.

May is looking at a possible time limit to the backstop arrangement and in­­creased parliamentary scrutiny to try to sway MPs. But if her efforts fail, many fear Britain could leave the EU with no deal, with potentially disastrous legal and economic consequences.

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