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Theresa May can't even get her own Cabinet to follow her orders on Brexit

May’s inability to control her own party has led to renewed calls for her to resign.

by David Gilbert
Mar 14 2019, 12:27pm

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After more than two years of negotiating Brexit, the British Parliament still has absolutely no idea what it wants.

On Wednesday lawmakers in London backed an amended motion to take a “no deal” Brexit off the table. Prime Minister Theresa May had hoped to retain control of the Brexit process by keeping "no deal" as an option, but she suffered yet another humiliation as members of her own party — including some of her Cabinet — openly defied her and voted for the motion.

May’s inability to control her own party has led to renewed calls for her to resign.

Ignoring the betrayals from her Cabinet, May said after the vote she would once again try to get her deal — which was soundly rejected again earlier this week — through Parliament next week in a last-ditch attempt to secure a more orderly departure from the EU.

If the deal is rejected for a third time, May said a lengthy extension to the Brexit process would be sought.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said Thursday he would “appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its #Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”

Later on Thursday, U.K. lawmakers will vote on whether or not to ask the EU for an extension.

Being abandoned by so many of her colleagues has led to accusations that May has lost control of the Conservative Party, with some openly calling for her to quit.

“When you have ministers who openly defy the prime minister, who openly defy a three-line whip, and nothing happens to them, you have to ask yourself, ‘Are you really in power?’ Indeed, ‘Are you really in office?’” Mark Francois, a Conservative Brexiter, told the BBC.

What is happening today?

Lawmakers will face a vote on whether or not to extend Article 50 — the legal instrument by which the U.K. will leave the EU. But like everything else about Brexit, the vote is not straightforward.

MPs have tabled eight officials' amendments to the vote, which include everything from delaying Brexit until 2021 and calling for a second referendum, to calling for the entire Brexit process to be canceled.

The decision on which amendments will be voted on is up to Speaker of the House John Bercow.

Bercow has indicated he will accept last-minute amendments and on Thursday morning an amendment from Labour MP Hilary Benn appears to be gaining traction. The amendment would seek to take control of the business of the House and would call for “indicative votes” on alternative Brexit solutions.

Is May flogging a dead horse?

The deal May has thrashed out with the EU over the last two years has already suffered two crushing defeats in Parliament, but the prime minister said Wednesday she will return to Parliament within a week to try and force her deal through for a third time.

Given the deal was rejected by 149 votes Tuesday and new concessions from Brussels are highly unlikely, there appears to be no reason for holding the third vote.

But two factions who voted against the deal on Tuesday could be about to change their mind.

The Democratic Unionist Party and the European Research Group (ERG), a faction within the Conservative Party pushing for a harder Brexit, may back the deal if the legal advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is clearer.

Cox said Tuesday “the legal risk [of being kept in the backstop] remains unchanged.” However, members of the ERG are now asking Cox if he can offer a view on whether article 62 of the Vienna convention could give the UK a let-out from the backstop.

“We are in conversations with the government,” DUP leader Arlene Foster told Sky News. “We’ll keep those conversations going because we want to get a deal. I think we need to finish those conversations before we decide what we’re going to do.”

What is Europe saying?

While the European Council President may be seeking support for a lengthy Brexit extension, not everyone in Europe agrees.

"Under no circumstances an extension in the dark," Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit spokesperson, said Thursday. "Unless there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for something precise, there is no reason at all for the European Council to agree on a prolongation.”

But unfortunately for Verhofstadt, the decision to grant an extension lies with Tusk’s European Council and not the European Parliament. In order to grant an extension of any length, the U.K. would need to unanimous approval of all 27 member states.

“There are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal. The EU is prepared for both,” a European Commission spokesperson said Thursday. “To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal - you have to agree to a deal. We have agreed a deal with the prime minister and the EU is ready to sign it.”

Cover image: British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves following a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on March 13, 2019 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)