LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May was scrambling Thursday to avoid another defeat on her Brexit plans amid opposition from members of her own party who claim she is moving in the wrong direction in efforts to overcome the impasse blocking a deal.
Hard-line pro-Brexit lawmakers in May’s Conservative Party said a motion to be voted on in Parliament later effectively rules out the threat of Britain leaving the European Union without an agreement on departure terms and future relations, a move they say undermines Britain’s bargaining position.
“Conservative MPs (members of Parliament) really ought not to be associated with anything, express or implied, which seems to take ‘no deal’ off the table,” said Brexit-backing Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker in a tweet.
Baker and other Brexiteers are threatening to rebel against the government, or abstain, in a vote intended to buy the government more time to seek changes from the EU to a Brexit divorce agreement.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, a prominent Brexit supporter in Cabinet, warned that a government defeat, though not legally binding, would send the wrong signal to EU leaders.
“They will be looking to see whether Parliament is showing consistency,” he said.
“I think that there’s a danger that we send the wrong signals and I think that we need to understand that the public want us to leave the European Union but they would prefer us to leave the European Union with a deal.”
Two weeks ago, Parliament voted to send May back to Brussels to seek changes to a section of the withdrawal agreement intended to ensure an open border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.
Lawmakers also voted to rule out a “no-deal” exit, though without signaling how that should happen.
May has chosen to ignore that instruction and refuses to take a “no-deal” Brexit off the table as she attempts to win concessions from the bloc. Most businesses and economists say the British economy would be severely damaged if the country crashed out of the EU on the scheduled Brexit date of March 29 without a deal, bringing tariffs and other impediments to trade.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told lawmakers that “the only way to avoid ‘no-deal’ is either to secure a deal on the terms the prime minister has set out” or to cancel Brexit - something the government says it won’t do.
Thursday’s main vote is on a government motion that essentially treads water, reaffirming Parliament’s commitment to its decisions of Jan. 29. Lawmakers will also get the chance to consider amendments from opposition and pro-EU lawmakers seeking to postpone Brexit or steer the U.K. away from the “no-deal” cliff edge.
“We are so patently unprepared for no deal that it is not credible,” said Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer.
None of the votes is legally binding on the government.
The remaining 27 EU nations insist that the legally binding withdrawal agreement struck with May’s government in November can’t be renegotiated.
Leaders of the bloc have expressed exasperation at Britain’s desire for last-minute changes, and its failure, amid seemingly endless wrangling in the U.K. Parliament, to offer firm proposals.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs summits of EU leaders, tweeted: “No news is not always good news. EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break #Brexit impasse.”
Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper said some British politicians were “living in a fantasy world” by believing a solution would magically appear.
“It’s as if we’re all standing around admiring the finery of the emperor’s new clothes and actually the emperor is running around stark naked and everyone is laughing at us — or at least they would be if it wasn’t so sad,” she said.
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