British Prime Minister Theresa May is scrambling to contain a deepening political crisis after a day of turmoil that included ministerial resignations, plots against her leadership and mounting concern that the draft European Union withdrawal agreement has little support in Parliament.
Throughout Thursday, the Prime Minister struck a defiant tone, even as four cabinet ministers resigned – including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. He’d only been in the job for four months after taking over in July from the last Brexit secretary, David Davis, who also quit over Ms. May’s Brexit strategy. Mr. Raab said he could no longer support the agreement because it kept the United Kingdom too closely tied to the EU.
Ms. May insisted this was the best deal possible and that, while she understood the concerns of her critics, she would not back down.
“I believe with every fibre of my being that the course that I’ve set out is the right one for our country and all our people,” she told a news conference on Thursday. “Leadership is about taking the right decisions, not the easy ones. … Am I going to see this through? Yes.”
That did little to ease the view of many who lambasted the deal on Thursday. During a three-hour session in the House of Commons, Ms. May faced a barrage of hostile questions and pointed attacks as she tried to explain the benefits of the agreement.
Only a handful of MPs supported her and the vast majority who spoke vowed to vote against the agreement. Some called for Ms. May to resign.
“The harsh cruel truth is that this is not the promised deal,” said Anna Soubry, a Tory MP who supports the U.K. remaining inside the EU.
The deal “was dead on arrival,” added Tory MP Mark Francois, a hard Brexit backer. “I plead with you to accept the political reality of the situation you now face.”
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn also rejected the deal, calling it “half baked” and adding “the government is falling apart before our eyes.”
Meanwhile, a group of Tory MPs began a push to remove Ms. May as leader. Under Conservative Party rules, 48 MPs can trigger a vote within the party’s caucus on whether she should remain leader. It’s unclear if the threshold has been met, but several MPs publicized letters they submitted to party officials calling for a no-confidence vote.
A key question now is what will happen if the Brexit agreement does not win the required parliamentary approval. Ms. May has said the draft is not yet finalized and MPs will be given a final agreement in a few weeks.
They will then have to decide whether to accept it or risk the U.K. leaving the EU on March 29 without an agreement, something business groups fear could cause economic chaos.
With the proposed deal facing stiff opposition, the push for another Brexit referendum is gaining momentum. But time is running out and Ms. May has rejected holding another one, arguing the public made its views known in 2016 when 52 per cent of voters backed leaving the EU.
“As far as I’m concerned, there will not be a second referendum,” she told reporters Thursday.
MPs from all sides on Thursday argued that holding another referendum on Brexit should be considered if the deal is voted down in Parliament.
“There is no majority in Parliament for her deal,” Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said. “There must now be a people’s vote to break the deadlock and get the country out of this mess.”
In recent weeks, a group called the People’s Vote has held large rallies in London trying to build support for a referendum. A YouGov survey of 1,153 people released on Thursday found 48 per cent wanted another referendum, compared with 34 per cent who did not.
It’s not clear how another referendum would work or what question would be asked. Some argue voters could have three choices: Ms. May’s deal, no deal or remaining in the EU. They would have to rank each choice and counting would be done based on the preferences.
“Another vote seems to be a way to resolve deadlock,” said Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
Labour Party MPs in particular, he said, might welcome a chance to call for another referendum instead of voting against Ms. May’s deal and potentially triggering a no-deal Brexit. “It offers you ways out of the impasse and that’s why it starts to become a plausible option.”
But he cautioned that those who hope to use the second vote as a way of returning the U.K. to the EU might be mistaken. Hard Brexit voters could opt for Ms. May’s deal, seeing it as a preferable option to leaving without an agreement, he said.
Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent, said challenges remain to holding a second referendum.
“The chances of a second vote have certainly increased, but we need to remember that both leaders of Britain’s two main parties [Conservative and Labour] remain opposed to one and the idea still does not command majority support among the population at large,” he said.
And organizing a vote would take around 22 weeks, he said, leaving little time before the U.K. leaves the EU on March 29. Some supporters of the idea have suggested the EU could extend the deadline to accommodate a vote.