British Prime Minister Theresa May has suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks just as she begins the arduous process of trying to win parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal with the European Union.
On Tuesday, Ms. May kicked off a five-day debate on the agreement in the House of Commons, imploring MPs to back the deal even though she has recognized it as flawed. “I don’t say that this deal is perfect. It was never going to be. That’s the nature of a negotiation," Ms. May said. “We will not bring our country together if we seek a relationship that gives everything to one side of the argument and nothing to the other. We should not let the search for the perfect Brexit prevent a good Brexit that delivers for the British people.”
The deal will be put to a vote Dec. 11 and it’s far from certain if it will pass, leaving the country in limbo with less than four months before it leaves the EU on March 29. Even before Ms. May began speaking Tuesday, there were clear signs of the challenge facing the Prime Minister. The government lost a series of votes on Brexit-related motions as MPs pushed back against Ms. May and her cabinet. At one point, more than two dozen of her fellow Conservatives sided with the opposition in backing a measure to give MPs more say over what will happen if the deal is defeated next week. In another unprecedented move, MPs forced the government to reveal the legal advice it received before signing the agreement, which could raise questions about how the terms of the deal are interpreted.
Ms. May has been under intense pressure from MPs ever since she and EU officials unveiled the agreement last month after years of negotiations. It comes in two parts: a 585-page, legally binding withdrawal agreement, which sets out the terms of Britain’s departure, and a 26-page, non-binding political declaration that offers a framework for a future economic relationship that will be negotiated later. The EU has insisted it will not renegotiate the terms, and Ms. May has said that if the agreement is defeated the country risks leaving without any arrangements.
So far, that has done little to win over support among MPs, and the biggest opposition comes from Ms. May’s Conservative caucus. The Tories don’t hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons, and about 100 Conservatives have spoken out against the agreement, with criticism coming from all sides in the Brexit debate. Hard-Brexit backers, who want to cut almost all ties to the EU, believe Ms. May’s deal keeps the country too closely linked to the bloc. Pro-European MPs argue Ms. May’s deal doesn’t go far enough in securing access to the bloc. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who backs a hard Brexit, called the deal a “pseudo-Brexit” and a “national humiliation.” “We are going to be rules takers [from the EU]. We are going to be a de facto colony,” he told the House of Commons Tuesday.
Opposition parties have also banded together to oppose the deal, including Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which had been propping up Ms. May’s government. “The deal before us would make this country worse off,” said Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. “I hope this deal is rejected, in which case we will force the government to go back and negotiate.”
It’s not clear what will happen if the vote is lost next week. Some MPs have been calling for a referendum on Ms. May’s deal, while Mr. Corbyn has said Labour will try to force an election. Government officials privately believe Ms. May could tweak the agreement slightly and bring it back for another vote in Parliament in January.
In another twist Tuesday, the advocate-general of the European Court of Justice said Britain could simply revoke Article 50, the section of the Lisbon Treaty that Ms. May triggered last year to pull the country out of the EU. The court is expected to make a final ruling on the matter soon and it usually follows the advice of the advocate-general. “The government has long argued that the choice is between their deal and no deal. But the statement this morning from the EU advocate-general shows the option of staying in the EU is still open to us,” Labour MP Chris Bryant said.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has come under fire from many hard-Brexit MPs ever since the bank released a report last week that said the economy could shrink 8 per cent under a no-deal scenario, house prices would fall 30 per cent and unemployment would climb to 7.5 per cent. Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called Mr. Carney “a second-tier Canadian politician” who failed to get a job at home, while other MPs accused him of tarnishing the bank’s reputation and trying to undermine Brexit. Some notable economists, including Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, also weighed in and challenged the bank’s outlook, calling it unrealistic.
On Tuesday, Mr. Carney shot back, calling the attacks “entirely unfair.” “There’s no exam crisis,” he told the House of Common’s treasury committee. “We didn’t just stay up all night and write a letter to the treasury committee. You asked us for something that we had and we brought it and we gave it to you.” He added that the bank had been doing the analysis for months, drawing on 20 senior economists and 150 professionals. The analysis “was not what we think is most likely to happen. It is a depiction of what could happen,” he told MPs. And he noted that even in the extreme scenario, the financial system would remain sound.
When asked if some of the media had been unfair to him and the report, Mr. Carney replied: “This country has a varied and vibrant media … that’s life.”