May battles confidence vote, warning Brexit is in peril

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Britain, December 12, 2018. Parliament TV handout. [Photo: REUTERS]

Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to win a vote of no confidence triggered by angry Brexit supporters in her Conservative Party on Wednesday, saying her ouster would jeopardise Britain’s divorce from the European Union.

Less than four months before the United Kingdom is due to leave on March 29, Brexit is in chaos with options ranging from a potentially disorderly no-deal departure to another referendum that could reverse it.

Speaking outside her Downing Street residence hours before the vote of confidence to decide her fate, May said she would fight with everything she had.

The long-running schism over Europe in her party contributed to the fall of all three previous Conservative premiers - David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.

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May, a 62-year-old vicar’s daughter who voted to remain in the EU at a 2016 referendum, told opponents if they toppled her, then Brexit would be delayed or stopped.

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

“I stand ready to finish the job.”

A new leader would not have time to renegotiate Brexit and secure parliamentary approval by the end of March, meaning the Article 50 withdrawal notice would have to be extended or rescinded, May said.

May will address lawmakers at a closed meeting before they cast votes in a metal box from 1800 GMT in Committee Room 14 at the House of Commons. An announcement is due at 2100.

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In a possible sign May might offer a date for resignation after Brexit, her spokesman said the vote would not be about who leads the party into the next election, due in 2022.

“She must go”

British PM Theresa May. [Photo: Reuters]
May could be toppled if a simple majority of Conservative lawmakers vote against her, though a significant rebellion could also undermine her position. However, at least 174 of her 315 lawmakers had indicated public support for her by 1420 GMT.

Brexit is Britain’s most significant political and economic decision since World War Two, though pro-Europeans fear it will weaken the West as it grapples with the presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

The outcome will shape Britain’s $2.8 trillion economy, have far reaching consequences for the U.K. unity, and determine whether London keeps its place as one of the top two global financial centres.

The British pound rose to 1.2615 against the U.S. dollar.

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May won the top job in the turmoil that followed the 2016 EU referendum but promised to implement Brexit as a way to heal a divided nation. But on Monday she pulled a parliamentary vote on her deal - which seeks to keep Britain closely aligned with the EU after exit - to avoid defeat.

Her trade minister, Liam Fox, said the government might not even put it to a vote unless the EU gave more reassurances on the so-called Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy aimed at preventing border controls on the island of Ireland.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the 27 other bloc members would not change a deal the EU spent two years negotiating.

Brexit-supporting lawmakers in her party say May has betrayed the people’s vote in negotiations, while opponents say she struck a deal that is the worst of all worlds - out of the EU but with no say over rules it has to abide by.

“Theresa May’s plan would bring down the government if carried forward,” lawmakers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker said in a statement. “Conservatives must now answer whether they wish to draw ever closer to an election under Mrs May’s leadership. In the national interest, she must go.”

Party divisions

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May’s predecessor Cameron bet all on the referendum he lost in 2016. Now, having already been weakened by a snap election last year which cost her a parliamentary majority, May also sees her own job at risk over Europe.

Widely praised for a punishing work ethic and dutiful approach, May’s premiership has been characterised by obduracy in the face of crises.

Ministers said changing leader at such an important moment in British history was folly. “I am absolutely sure the prime minister will win,” said Michael Gove, most senior Brexiteer in May’s government.

But as investors and company bosses tried to gauge the ultimate outcome of the political crisis, some were betting Brexit would be thwarted.

The EU’s top court ruled on Monday that Britain could cancel its Article 50 notice to leave without permission from other members and without losing privileges.

But if May’s deal fails and Brexit is not delayed, then Britain could be heading towards a disorderly exit that investors fear will clog the arteries of trade, dislocate supply chains and roil markets.

“We are working hard to make sure we get an orderly Brexit,” said Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader.

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Prime MinisterTheresa MayConservative PartyBrexitEuropean UnionImpeachment