LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a damaging setback on Tuesday when her government lost a vote and was found in contempt of parliament at the start of five days of debate over her plans to leave the European Union. May wants to secure parliament`s approval for her deal to keep close ties with the EU after leaving in March, but opposition from lawmakers is fierce, with Brexit supporters and critics alike wanting to thwart her plan.
The strength of that opposition was felt before the debate even began when lawmakers found the government in contempt of parliament for refusing to release its full legal advice on Britain`s exit. The government said it would now comply. After the vote, sterling fell to its lowest against the dollar since mid-August.
The debates and final vote on Dec. 11 are crucial in determining how, and possibly even if, Britain leaves the EU as planned on March 29, in the country`s biggest shift in foreign and trade policy in more than 40 years. Her plans are vulnerable to more change over the five-day debate, and advice from a senior EU legal aid that Britain had the right to withdraw its Brexit notice opened yet another front in May`s battle to win the approval of parliament. So far, however, May is standing firm.
"The British people want us to get on with a deal that honours the referendum and allows us to come together again as a country, whichever way we voted," she will tell lawmakers on Tuesday, according to excerpts of her speech. "This is the deal that delivers for the British people."
If lawmakers do not back her deal, May says, they could open the door either to Britain falling out of the EU without measures to soften the transition or to the possibility that Brexit does not happen.
Anxious to prevent a "no-deal" Brexit, a group of mainly pro-EU lawmakers from May`s Conservative Party are moving to make sure parliament gets more power to dictate any next steps the government takes if her exit plan fails. For them, there may be another way out. The formal advice from a European Court of Justice advocate general - not binding but usually heeded by the court - suggested to some lawmakers that revoking the "Article 50" divorce notice was an option.
"It`s a false choice to say it`s the PM`s deal or chaos," said Conservative lawmaker Sam Gyimah, who quit as a minister on Friday over May`s deal. "We should look at all the options and not be boxed in by our own red lines." But May`s spokesman told reporters: "It does nothing in any event to change the clear position of the government that Article 50 is not going to be revoked."
The crucial December 11 vote is likely to decide the shape of Brexit. If against the odds, May wins, Britain will leave the EU on March 29 on the terms she negotiated with Brussels - its biggest shift in trade and foreign policy for more than 40 years. If she loses, May could call for a second vote on the deal. But defeat would increase the chances of a "no-deal" exit, which could mean chaos for Britain`s economy and businesses and put May under fierce pressure to resign.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney denied accusations of scaremongering after the bank said last week that, under a worst-case Brexit, Britain could suffer greater damage to its economy than during the financial crisis of 2008. Defeat for May could make it more likely that Britain will hold a second referendum on exiting the EU - which would almost certainly require it at least to defer its departure - three years after voting narrowly to leave.
The vote against the government over contempt proceedings, won by 311 against 293, suggests that opposition to her plan is widespread.
May, 62, has toured Britain, spent hours being grilled in parliament and invited lawmakers to her Downing Street residence to try to win over her many critics. But the deal has united critics at both ends of the spectrum: eurosceptics say it will make Britain a vassal state while EU supporters take a similar line, saying it will have to obey the rules of membership while foregoing the benefits. Her own nominal allies in the Northern Irish DUP have also said they will vote against her deal.