LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May abruptly decided on Monday to pull a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, throwing Britain’s plan to leave the European Union up in the air on the eve of the vote, after repeated warnings from members of parliament she faced a rout.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May returns to Downing Street in London, Britain, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville
While there was no immediate official announcement, the decision to halt the vote set for Tuesday was widely reported and not denied. Two sources told BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg the vote was being pulled. A Financial Times reporter said an official close to the cabinet had confirmed it.
The move thrusts the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union into chaos, with possible options including a disorderly Brexit with no deal, another referendum on EU membership or a last minute renegotiation of May’s deal.
The decision to halt the vote came just hours after the EU’s top court ruled that Britain could unilaterally withdraw its decision to leave the bloc on March, 29.
May’s government called that ruling meaningless because Britain has no intention to halt Brexit. But critics of her plans said it opens options, including delaying the exit for more talks, or calling it off if voters change their minds.
After repeated warnings that the Dec. 11 vote in parliament would humiliate her government as opponents and supporters of Brexit joined in opposition to her deal, May convened a conference call with senior ministers on Monday.
She was due to give a statement to parliament at 1500 GMT on “Exiting the EU.” Afterwards, the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, who organises business in parliament on the government’s behalf, was due to speak.
May’s apparent inability to win support for her agreement creates doubt over her own future. If she stays in power, she could seek to get a better deal from the EU at a summit on Dec. 13-14, in the hope of putting it before parliament at a later date. But her enemies were already pouncing on a fiasco.
“We don’t have a functioning government,” opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “The government has decided Theresa May’s Brexit deal is so disastrous that it has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the eleventh hour.”
Sterling GBP=D3 skidded to its weakest level since June, 2017.
Brexit is seen as Britain’s most significant decision since World War Two. Supporters say it frees Britain to trade more widely with the rest of the world; opponents fear it will divide the West as it grapples with the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
The ultimate outcome will shape Britain’s $2.8 trillion economy, have far reaching consequences for the unity of the United Kingdom and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top two global financial centres.
Just hours before the reports of a cancelled vote, the EU court ruled that Britain could cancel its official Article 50 notice to leave the bloc without permission from the other EU members and without losing any special privileges.
That went against the position of the EU’s own executive Commission, which said Britain would need permission from other members, and European leaders who said London should lose perks agreed over the years, such as a valuable rebate on its dues.
May’s Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt called the ruling “irrelevant” because Britain will leave no matter what, when scheduled on March 29. To do otherwise would disrespect the majority that voted to leave, he said. In the June 23, 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, backed staying.
More than two years since the 2016 vote, the United Kingdom remains divided on how or even whether it should leave the club it first joined in 1973. Polls show few voters have changed their minds, despite warnings of economic turmoil.
Both May’s ruling Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party are publicly committed to carrying out Brexit. A no-deal Brexit, though, is seen as so disruptive that parliament would be under strong pressure to block it.
A growing number of backbench members of parliament say the only solution would be a new referendum, an option backed by three of the four living former prime ministers, but strongly opposed by the government.
Michael Gove, the most prominent Brexit campaigner in the British government, said the court ruling “doesn’t alter either the referendum vote or the clear intention of the government to leave on March 29”. “We don’t want to stay in the EU,” Gove, who serves as environment minister, told BBC radio.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff