LONDON: British MPs voted on Wednesday to force Prime Minister Theresa May to quickly set out an alternative plan for Brexit if she loses a crucial vote on her EU withdrawal deal next week, in a second parliamentary defeat in 24 hours.
The House of Commons voted to reduce the time the government has to outline a “plan B” from 21 days to three if, as expected, lawmakers reject the Brexit agreement in a vote on Tuesday.
Members of May’s own Conservative party led the revolt amid fears that the current timetable takes Britain too close to crashing out of the European Union on March 29 with no deal at all.
It was the second setback in as many days for the prime minister, after MPs voted late Tuesday to deny the government certain taxation powers in a no-deal scenario — another attempt to avoid such an outcome.
Speaking to MPs earlier, May said: “The only way to avoid no deal is to vote for the deal.” But her spokesman added: “If that were not to take place … we would respond quickly and provide certainty on the way forward.”
Opposition Labour spokesman Keir Starmer said MPs could then start debating alternatives to her plan — and raised the prospect of delaying Brexit.
“I actually genuinely think we can’t do it on March 29 this year. It’s simply not viable, for so many practical reasons,” he told the Commons.
“So we’re going to have to look at what are the available options that realistically are still on the table.”
The parliamentary manoeuvres came at the start of five days of debate on the deal May struck with the EU last November, which has been strongly opposed from lawmakers on all sides.
She set out further clarifications she hopes will win over her own Conservative MPs and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her government in parliament.
The most controversial element of the agreement is the “backstop” arrangement, which could see Northern Ireland continue to follow certain EU trade rules after Brexit to avoid border checks with Ireland.
The government has now offered guarantees to devolved politicians in the province over the operation of the backstop, and on the free flow of trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
But DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the proposals were “meaningless and cosmetic”.
May is also seeking assurances on the operation of the backstop from European leaders, which she hopes to deliver before the vote next week, although they say they will not reopen the deal.
The prime minister has already postponed the vote once — in December — to avoid defeat by MPs, but has insisted next week’s will go ahead.
Both this week’s revolts were driven by Conservative MPs seeking to prevent a “no deal” scenario, which they fear would cause huge economic disruption.
Late on Tuesday, 303 MPs — including more than a dozen former Conservative ministers — voted to restrict the government’s taxation powers in a “no deal” scenario, against 296 who backed May.
The government said it was an “inconvenience” but would not stop its preparations for leaving the EU.
Wednesday’s amendment, which passed by 308 votes to 297, has more weight.
It states that if May loses the vote next week, she must explain her next steps within three parliamentary sitting days — by the latest, Monday Jan 21.
She would then have a further seven days to put a motion to the House of Commons, which MPs could amend to try to direct the government’s strategy.