13 Feb 2019

May delay: UK PM asks lawmakers for more time on Brexit

7:27 am on 13 February 2019

British PM Theresa May urged restive lawmakers Tuesday (London local time) to hold their nerve and give her more time to rework a divorce agreement with the European Union, heightening concerns that Brexit uncertainty will continue right up to the edge of the UK's departure on 29 March.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech to members of the media in Downing Street in London on January 16, 2019, after surviving a vote of no confidence in her government.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech to members of the media in Downing Street in London on January 16, 2019, after surviving a vote of no confidence in her government. Photo: AFP

With Britain's EU exit just 45 days away, May tried to avert a rebellion when Parliament votes again Thursday on Brexit by promising another series of votes two weeks later.

Some lawmakers want to use Thursday's votes to impose conditions on May's Conservative government in an attempt to rule out a cliff-edge "no deal" Brexit that would see Britain crash out of the EU without a framework for smooth future relations.

May sought to buy time, telling lawmakers they would get another chance to alter her course on 27 February if she had not secured changes to the Brexit deal by then.

May signalled she might delay Parliament's vote on whether to approve the divorce deal even further, potentially holding it after a 21 and 22 March EU summit - just days before Britain is due to leave the bloc.

She would not rule that out when questioned by opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"We must agree a deal that this house can support and that is what I am working to achieve," she told the House of Commons.

"The talks are at a crucial stage," May added.

"We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this house requires and deliver Brexit on time."

Jeremy Corbyn got himself into trouble on Wednesday for apparently muttering "stupid woman" at Prime Minister Theresa May during a heated exchange in parliament over her delaying tactics on Brexit.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn Photo: AFP

The opposition was having none of this.

"Our country is facing the biggest crisis in a generation and yet the prime minister continues to recklessly run down the clock," Corbyn said.

Parliament last month rejected May's Brexit deal with the EU, in part over a contentious plan to keep a seamless border between the UK's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.

The measure, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU and removes the need for checks along the border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place. The free flow of people and goods across the frontier has been an important measure upholding Northern Ireland's peace deal.

But pro-Brexit British lawmakers fear the backstop could trap the UK in regulatory lockstep with the EU, unable to strike new trade deals around the world.

May and other Cabinet ministers are holding talks with senior EU officials in an attempt to add a time limit or an exit clause to the backstop. But EU leaders insist the legally binding Brexit withdrawal agreement can't be changed.

Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Monday that "something has to give" on the British side to secure an orderly Brexit.

May has also held talks with Labour, the UK's main opposition party, which said it could support a Brexit deal if the government promised to seek a close relationship with the EU after Britain leaves. But any such move would cost May the support of a big chunk of her Conservative Party.

The political impasse leaves Britain lurching toward a chaotic no-deal departure that could be costly for businesses and ordinary people in both the UK and the EU.

May's political opponents accuse the government of deliberately wasting time until lawmakers face a last-minute choice between her deal and no deal.

May "is playing for time and playing with people's jobs, our economic security and the future of our industry," said Corbyn.

House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, who is in charge of the parliamentary timetable, denied that the government was wasting time. She said May would bring her deal back to Parliament for a vote "as soon as the issue around the backstop has been sorted out".

"It is a negotiation. It's not possible to predict the future," she told the BBC.

Economy hit

Uncertainty about what trade relationship Britain will have with the bloc after Brexit is weighing on the UK economy. Figures released Monday showed that Britain's economy slowed last year to its joint-slowest annual rate since 2009, with business investment declining for four straight quarters.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said Tuesday that UK investment had not grown since the 2016 EU membership referendum, and has "dramatically underperformed both history and peers".

"It is in the interests of everyone, arguably everywhere ... that a Brexit solution that works for all is found in the weeks ahead," he said.

- AP

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