Skip to main content

British Prime Minister Theresa May has launched a frantic effort to save her Brexit deal with the European Union as challenges to her leadership increase and the future of her government is thrown into question.

Ms. May has started a whirlwind tour of Europe with stops in The Hague, Berlin, Dublin and two trips to Brussels over the next few days. She’s trying to win some concessions from EU leaders that will appease critics in the British House of Commons who have so far refused to back her Brexit agreement.

While her meetings on Tuesday with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were polite, Ms. May appeared to make little progress. “We said that there will be no further opening of the exit deal,” Ms. Merkel said after the meeting. In Brussels, too, the reaction was cool. After meeting Ms. May late Tuesday, Donald Tusk, who heads the EU Council which represents the leaders, wrote on Twitter: “Clear that [EU] wants to help. The question is how?”

Ms. May’s Brexit plan has been thrown into turmoil after she was forced to defer a vote on the deal in the House of Commons on Monday because of mounting opposition. She said she will return to Parliament with a new deal before Jan. 21, but it’s not clear what changes she can make in that time frame or if the United Kingdom will have an agreement by the time it formally leaves the EU on March 29.

Ms. May is in a tight spot when it comes to fixing the deal. Her opponents come largely from her Conservative Party caucus, and Tory MPs have zeroed in on two key features of the legally-binding withdrawal agreement. Both relate to the backstop provision – a mechanism to keep the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland open – which would take effect if the U.K. and the EU were unable to reach a broader agreement on trade and other matters within three years of the U.K. leaving the bloc on March 29. Under the backstop, the U.K. would remain in a customs arrangement with the EU, governing trade in goods, and Northern Ireland would have even closer ties to ensure an open border with Ireland.

Tory MPs complain the backstop has no time limit and it can only be dropped with the consent of the EU, something they argue undermines the country’s sovereignty. They have told Ms. May to negotiate a time limit on the backstop and a measure that would allow the U.K. to unilaterally get out of it. However, both of those changes would require reopening the withdrawal agreement and the EU has insisted that it’s a done deal. The only concessions the EU might consider are some kind of legal opinion or firm commitment that would limit the backstop, but Tory MPs have said that unless the changes were legally binding they won’t support the deal, putting Ms. May in an almost impossible position.

Ms. May vowed to carry on and insisted talks with European leaders have been productive. “What has been shown to me from those meetings is there is a shared determination to deal with this issue and address this problem,” she told reporters in Brussels.

Even as Ms. May launched her EU lobbying campaign, a group of MPs from all parties began plotting to undermine her by either trying to bring down her government or force another referendum on Brexit. The MPs have called for an immediate vote of non-confidence in the government which could result in a snap election if it passed. It’s doubtful the vote would be successful, since none of Ms. May’s Conservative Party MPs have expressed support for an election and neither have the Conservative’s allies in parliament, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

However, the group of MPs believe that if the non-confidence motion failed, they would have enough cross-party support in parliament to win a motion calling for the country to hold a referendum on whether to accept Ms. May’s deal or remain in the EU. The odds of a second referendum “are quite high,” said Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats. “This issue is not going to be settled and we have to find a way of settling it by having a peoples’ vote on Brexit.”

Several polls have shown growing support for a second Brexit referendum, but opinion has been divided on whether voters would back remaining in the EU. Any new ballot would ask voters if they want to depart under the specific terms of the agreement, or to remain in the EU. There’s also growing disenchantment with Ms. May’s handling of Brexit, with several polls showing that a large majority of those surveyed believe she is doing a bad job on Brexit.

Tory MP Anna Soubry, who also supports another referendum, said the group wants to move quickly because they fear Ms. May will try to drag out the EU negotiations in order to leave as little time as possible for MPs to consider her new deal. “Suddenly it will be, ‘If you’re not going to vote for my deal, you’ll get no deal,' ” she said. “This would be hugely, grossly, irresponsible … People are looking at this, in the EU and indeed across the world, with increasing bewilderment and horror. How do you think people in the country are thinking about it? What we need is good strong leadership.”

And amid all that uncertainty, a group of Tory MPs has relaunched a move to remove Ms. May as party leader. Party rules require the backing of 48 MPs to call a leadership review and on Tuesday, reports indicated that they were close.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe