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LONDON (Reuters) – The parliament will vote on Wednesday on whether to leave the European Union in 16 days without an agreement as the government said it would eliminate import tariffs on a wide range of goods in a no-deal Brexit scenario.
British lawmakers on Tuesday handed Prime Minister Theresa May a second humiliating defeat on the Brexit plan she had agreed with the EU, plunging the country deeper into political crisis.
The turmoil leaves the world’s fifth largest economy facing a range of scenarios – it could leave without a transition deal; delay the March 29 divorce date enshrined in law; May could hold a snap election or try a third time to get her deal passed; or Britain could hold another Brexit referendum.
On Wednesday, parliament is expected to reject a no-deal Brexit in a vote at 1900 GMT, although this will have no legal force. On Thursday, it will then vote on whether to ask the EU for a delay to Brexit, something to which all the bloc’s other 27 members must agree.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc would need to know why Britain wanted to extend talks and it was up to London to find a way out of the deadlock.
“If the UK still wants to leave the EU in an orderly manner, this treaty is – and will remain – the only treaty possible,” Barnier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Britain’s Parliament delivered a crushing defeat to Prime Minister Theresa May’s European Union divorce deal Tuesday, plunging the Brexit process into chaos just 17 days before the UK is due to leave the bloc.
Lawmakers rejected the deal 391-242, ignoring May’s entreaties to back the agreement and end the political chaos and economic uncertainty that Brexit has unleashed.
It was a narrower outcome than the 230-vote margin of defeat for the agreement in January, before May secured changes from the bloc — but not by much.
With EU leaders warning there would be no more changes or negotiations, and with less than three weeks to go until the UK is due to leave, British lawmakers now face a stark choice between leaving the EU without an agreement to smooth the way, or delaying the country’s withdrawal past the scheduled March 29 departure date.
May — her voice ragged after days of frantic shuttle diplomacy to secure last-minute changes to the deal — had earlier told the House of Commons, “this is the moment and this is the time — time for us to come together, back this motion and get the deal done.”
“If this deal is not passed, then Brexit could be lost,” May said.
But prominent Brexit supporters whose support May needs were unconvinced. Hard-core Brexit supporters in May’s Conservative Party and the prime minister’s allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party both said they could not support the deal, which Parliament rejected by an overwhelming margin in January.
The DUP, which props up May’s minority government, said “sufficient progress has not been achieved” on the key issue of the Irish border.
The European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservatives, which has dozens of lawmakers as members, said the amendments “do not deliver ‘legally binding changes'” to the withdrawal agreement, as the government promised.
“In light of our own legal analysis and others, we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today,” group member Bill Cash said.
At a late-night news conference Monday in Strasbourg, France, May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced changes designed to overcome lawmakers’ concerns about provisions designed to ensure the border between EU member Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland remains open after Brexit.
The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place. Brexit supporters in Britain fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely.
May said documents to be added to the deal provided “legally binding” assurances that the backstop would be temporary and that Britain would have a way to get out of it if the EU failed to negotiate in good faith. However, the text of the 585-page withdrawal agreement remained unchanged.
May hoped the changes would be enough to overturn the 230-vote margin of defeat for the deal in January.
But her hopes were dashed when Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said the changes “reduce the risk” Britain could be trapped inside EU regulations — but do not eliminate it. The two-page opinion said the UK could still not extract itself from the terms of the divorce deal unilaterally, a key demand of pro-Brexit British politicians.
In a written legal opinion , Cox said that if UK-EU negotiations became stalled through “intractable differences,” Britain would have “no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
John Whittingdale, a Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmaker, said the attorney general’s advice was “pretty terminal” for May’s plan.
The main opposition Labour Party also said it would reject the deal.
“In terms of the substance, literally nothing has changed,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said.
The pound, which had risen on hopes the deal would be passed, slumped by more than 1 percent against the dollar after Cox’s assessment, to trade at $1.3108.
Other EU nations had urged British politicians to seize the chance to back the deal and ensure an orderly departure.
German EU affairs minister Michael Roth, called it “a far-reaching compromise.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted that he was “pleased with the agreement,” adding: “An orderly #Brexit is crucial for both the EU and the UK. There is no alternative.”
The EU warned British politicians that negotiations will not be reopened if Parliament rejects the deal again.
“In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. It is what you do with this second chance that counts. Because there will be no third chance,” Juncker said.
Britain’s political impasse over Brexit has raised fears of a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit that could mean major disruption for businesses and people in the UK and the 27 remaining EU countries, with tariffs and border checks imposed on trade between the two.
Lawmakers are now due to vote in the next two days on whether to leave the EU without an agreement — an idea likely to be rejected — or to ask the EU to delay Brexit.
Delaying Brexit would need the approval from all 27 remaining EU countries. They are likely to agree, as long as Britain leaves before elections to the European parliament in late May.
Some British lawmakers had warned their Brexit-backing colleagues that rejecting the deal could lead to Britain’s departure being postponed indefinitely, because a delay would give momentum to opponents of Brexit.
“Today is our Hotel California moment. If we don’t check out tonight, we may never leave,” tweeted Conservative legislator Bob Seely.
More than two and a half years after the country voted to leave the EU — and with no certainty about when or how it will — many Britons are simply fed up.
In the staunchly pro-Brexit port of Dover in southern England, retiree Mary Simpson said she felt that her voice as a “leave” voter had not been heard.
“I am actually considering never voting again, quite honestly, because I am beginning to feel that there is no point in it,” she said.
Tony Blair has said the Independent Group (TIG) of breakaway MPs are “courageous” but he will stay in Labour as he is “deeply attached” to the party.
Blair, a long-standing critic Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, denied he was involved with TIG MPs’ plan to split the party but said he had “sympathy” with them.
Speaking to BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, he added: “I’m in touch with them and I have spoken to some of them.
“I’ve got a great deal of sympathy with what they’re doing and what they’re saying.”
Luciana Berger, Gavin Shuker and others cited Corbyn’s delay in taking a more pro-EU stance and the party’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism as among the reasons for splitting away.
It comes amid speculation more Labour MPs could be tempted to leave Labour to sit with the new group, for which Streatham MP Chuka Umunna is spokesman and three pro-EU Tory MPs joined last week.
Blair said he hopes to “bring the Labour Party back” to the centre ground.
He added: “I’m staying in the Labour Party. I’ve been in the Labour Party for over 40 years, I led it for 13 years, I was longest-serving Labour prime minister, I’m deeply attached to the Labour Party.
“But do I sympathise with what they have done? Yes, I do. I think they’re courageous in having done it.”
Blair said he is “deeply concerned” about Labour’s direction and policy, adding: “If you want to get back to winning ways, this is not the position to be in.”
He said he believed Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has “shown really great leadership” in recent weeks.
It comes amid reports Watson has set up a social democratic group within the party that will come up with policy ideas.
The deputy has also clashed with the party’s general secretary Jennie Formby over how anti-Semitism complaints are handled.
Blair added: “As a result of what he’s doing, he’s encouraging people who do share a perspective of the Labour Party as a governing, modern, progressive party, he’s actually encouraging them in a sense to stay because he’s providing a space within which people can debate and argue.”
The former PM also welcomed Labour’s switch to backing a second referendum on Brexit.
Blair added: “I think it’s absolutely inevitable that if you put the choice before the country – hard Brexit Tory party, hard-left Labour Party – it doesn’t matter what I say, what I want to happen, what anyone else says, you leave that amount of fertile territory open, someone is going to cultivate it.”
Chuka Umunna has called on voters to join breakaway Labour and Tory MPs in building a new “movement” that represents modern Britain.
In a sign that the Independent Group (TIG) will form a fully fledged parliamentary party, the former Labour MP called for the public to “join us, and help us forge a new, different kind of politics for Britain’s future”.
Umunna, who represents Streatham in south London, is one of eight former Labour MPs who have joined forces with three former Tories to make a new group in the Commons.
TIG does not have a leader or a detailed policy platform, but an Opinium poll for the Observer has put the group’s support at 6% – a point ahead of the Lib Dems.
The former Labour frontbencher said the two main parties had become “dominated by extremes”, citing factional infighting in his old party and the influence of hardline Brexiters on the Tories.
“This week we have come together in the national interest, to say ‘enough is enough’. We have each put everything on the line to give something new a try. Believe me, it wasn’t an easy decision for any of us,” Umunna said.
“We don’t yet know the destination where the path we’ve taken will lead us. But what me and my Independent Group colleagues are absolutely clear about is that we cannot and must not recreate the old parties with their tribalism and incompetence.
“As we embark on this new chapter, most importantly we want you to help us build a new movement, and we’re keen to hear from you. Join us, and help us forge a new, different kind of politics for Britain’s future.”
TIG’s MPs all campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU, while Umunna has been a prominent supporter of a second referendum.
The former shadow business secretary and Labour leadership contender has been described as the obvious candidate to lead TIG in the Commons, where the 11-strong group equals the Lib Dems in size and outnumbers the DUP by one.
There has been continued speculation that more Labour and Tory MPs will quit and potentially join the new group in the coming days and weeks as Brexit comes to a head.
The departures already mark the biggest parliamentary schism since the formation of the Social Democratic party in the 1980s.
However, many of TIG’s MPs will face a huge challenge if they want to hold on to their seats in a future election.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and several members of his shadow cabinet staged a rally in the Tory breakaway Anna Soubry’s Broxtowe constituency on Saturday.
The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said MPs who left Labour had “betrayed” their seats and would be defeated if elections were held.
Fighting for seats in a general election will require significant funding, although TIG has already attracted support from major donors who have abandoned the main parties in recent months.