Britain’s exit from the European Union hung in the balance on Tuesday after Prime Minister Theresa May’s newly won assurances on her divorce deal failed to win over the main Brexit faction in her Conservative Party hours before a vote in parliament.
In a last-ditch bid to plot an orderly path out of the Brexit maze days before the United Kingdom is due to leave, May rushed to Strasbourg on Monday to agree legally binding assurances with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
But Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said in a written opinion the assurances left the legal risk of the United Kingdom being locked in the bloc’s orbit after Brexit, the most controversial issue for Brexit-supporting lawmakers.
“The legal risk remains unchanged,” Cox said. “However, the matter of law affecting withdrawal can only inform what is essentially a political decision that each of us must make.”
Sterling fell as much as 2 cents on Cox’s advice, which was seen as reducing the chance that May’s deal will be approved by parliament. It was trading at $1.3092 at 1323 GMT.
British lawmakers, who on Jan. 15 voted 432-202 against May’s deal, will vote at 1900 GMT. The main pro-Brexit faction in May’s party, the European Research Group, said it did not recommend voting for her deal.
The main sticking point is the so-called Irish border backstop, an insurance policy aimed at avoiding controls on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland after Brexit.
Brexit-supporting lawmakers expressed suspicion at the haste of May’s last-minute assurances and suggested a delay to allow sufficient analysis of them and Cox’s advice.
“I am very, very suspicious and concerned about the time scale,” Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen said. The ink isn’t even dry on the agreement… And we’ve got to vote on it today.”
Nigel Dodds, the parliamentary leader of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May’s minority government, said the assurances would still trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit.
If lawmakers vote down May’s deal again, they will be given a vote on Wednesday on leaving without a deal, and if they turn down that option they will vote on Thursday on delaying Brexit.
May had announced three documents – a joint instrument, a joint statement and a unilateral declaration – which she said were aimed at addressing the Irish backstop, the most contentious part of the divorce deal she agreed with the EU in November.
She said the assurances created an arbitration channel for any disputes on the backstop, “entrenches in legally-binding form” existing commitments that it will be temporary and binds the UK and EU to starting work on replacing the backstop with other arrangements by December 2020.
In essence, the assurances give the United Kingdom a possible path out of the backstop through arbitration and underscore the EU’s repeated pledges that it does not want to trap the United Kingdom in the backstop.
The European Research Group said the verdict of its ‘Star Chamber’ set up to analyse the assurances was that they did not deliver legally binding changes to the Brexit deal or the Irish backstop and did not provide an exit mechanism over which Britain had control.
“In the light of our own legal analysis and others we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today,” William Cash, a senior pro-Brexit Conservative Party lawmaker said.
After two-and-a-half years of haggling since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Juncker cautioned this was Britain’s last chance. “It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said.
The United Kingdom’s labyrinthine crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an array of possible outcomes, including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.
Brexit will pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown and many fear it will divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
Supporters of Brexit say while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive and also enable deeper EU integration without such a powerful reluctant member.
May, an initial opponent of Brexit who won the top job in the chaos following the 2016 referendum, has repeatedly warned that if lawmakers reject her deal then Brexit could be thwarted.