May survives no confidence vote, but future of Brexit still unclear

Prime Minister Theresa May staved off a rebellion by her fellow Torries, but emerged weaker after failing to guarantee a majority of votes in Parliament for her Brexit plan. Ms. May is heading back to Brussels for more EU negotiations, but the bloc is resisting substantial changes.  

Tim Ireland/AP
British Prime Minister Theresa May walks from 10 Downing Street to make a statement, in London on Dec. 12, 2018. Ms. May survived a no-confidence vote Wednesday by her fellow Conservative lawmakers.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was seeking a lifeline from European Union leaders Thursday after winning a no-confidence vote among her own Conservative lawmakers.

Ms. May was meeting Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Council President Donald Tusk before an EU summit in Brussels at which she will seek reassurances about the deal that she can use to win over a skeptical British Parliament, particularly pro-Brexit lawmakers whose loathing of the deal triggered Wednesday's challenge to her leadership.

May caused an uproar in Parliament this week when she scrapped a planned vote on the deal at the last minute to avoid a heavy defeat. Two days later she won a leadership vote among 317 Conservative lawmakers by 200 votes to 117.

The victory gives May a reprieve – the party can't challenge her again for a year. But the size of the rebellion underscores the unpopularity of her Brexit plan.

The EU is adamant there can be no substantive changes to the legally-binding withdrawal agreement but have suggested that there could be some "clarifications."

May's Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, told the BBC that there were signs of "positive" movement from the EU on the one issue that has proved the most intractable – a legal guarantee designed to prevent the re-implementation of physical border controls between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU.

The backstop and Northern Ireland

The provision, known as the backstop, would keep the UK part of the EU customs union if the two sides couldn't agree on another way to avoid a hard border.

During Northern Ireland's decades of violence, the border bristled with soldiers, customs posts, smugglers and paramilitaries. But since a 1998 peace accord, the border has become all but invisible. That's helped by the fact that Britain and Ireland currently are both EU members, meaning goods and people can flow across the border with no need for customs checks.

Brexit could end all that, disrupting lives and businesses on both sides of the border and potentially undermining the peace process.

To avoid that, the withdrawal agreement includes a border guarantee, known as the "backstop." It stipulates that if no other solution can be found, the UK will remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit to avoid the need for a hard border. Both sides hope the backstop will never be needed: The agreement gives them until 2022 to reach a permanent new trade deal that could render it unnecessary.

Pro-Brexit lawmakers strongly oppose the backstop, because it keeps Britain bound to EU trade rules, and unable to leave without the bloc's consent. Pro-EU politicians consider it an unwieldy and inferior alternative to staying in the bloc.

"There is movement, but the question is how do we ensure that that movement is sufficient for colleagues?" Mr. Barclay said. "But colleagues also need to focus on the fact that alternative deals also need a backstop."

Re-opening the negotiations to address the border problem also raises the risk that May could lose concessions on other parts of the deal, Barclay said.

Among EU leaders there is sympathy for May's predicament – but also exasperation at Britain's political mess and little appetite to reopen the negotiations. On Thursday, the German parliament has approved a motion stating that the Brexit deal can't be renegotiated, underlining the stance of the government and European Union allies.

The largely symbolic motion states that "there will not be an agreement that is better and fairer for both sides. Any hope that a rejection of the agreement could lead to its renegotiation must prove to be illusory."

"It must be clear to all that the finely balanced overall package cannot be undone again," it adds.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down to Britain's departure from the bloc, which is due to take place on March 29 – deal or no deal. A parliamentary schedule published Thursday shows the Brexit deal won't be debated or voted on before the House of Commons rises for a two-week Christmas break on Dec. 20.

The no-confidence vote has left May weakened, and was won after she promised colleagues she would quit as leader before the next British election in 2022. It also has left lawmakers from the governing Conservative Party at loggerheads over the way ahead.

Prominent pro-Brexit legislator Jacob Rees-Mogg said that May should resign even though she won the vote.

He said Britain needed "somebody who can unite the country and the Conservative Party, and she has to ask herself is she realistically that person?"

Foreign Minister Alistair Burt said in a tweet that Conservative Brexiteers would never be satisfied.

"They never, ever stop.... After the apocalypse, all that will be left will be ants and Tory MPs complaining about Europe and their leader," he wrote.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Additional reporting by Geir Moulson in Berlin and Lorne Cook in Brussels.

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