Theresa May delays crucial Brexit vote hours after EU’s top court said UK can unilaterally scrap divorce from the bloc
- British PM says deal was facing defeat by a ‘significant margin’
- European Court of Justice decision means it might be possible for British MPs to end the move to leave the bloc, in a major blow to May
British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday said she would delay a crucial vote on her Brexit deal scheduled for Tuesday, saying she had listened to the concerns of critics.
May said she would seek “assurances” from other European leaders ahead of an EU summit later this week in a bid to try to win back support for her maligned plan in Britain.
“If we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow the deal would be rejected by a significant margin,” May told parliament.
“We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the house (of Commons) at this time.”
May added that she had spoken to “a number of EU leaders” over the weekend in advance of a bloc meeting Thursday.
“In advance of the European Council I will go to see my counterparts in other member states and the leadership of the Council and the Commission,” she said.
“I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House has expressed.”
At the same time she said Britain would step up preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
“For as long as we fail to agree a deal, the risk of an accidental no deal increases. So the government will step up its work in preparation for that potential outcome,” she told parliament.
May faced a huge rebellion of her own Conservative MPs over the withdrawal agreement she struck in Brussels last month, while opposition parties are also lined up against her.
May held talks this weekend with leaders including EU President Donald Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The pound fell sharply against the dollar on the announcement, which increased uncertainty over whether Britain will agree any terms with the EU before it leaves the bloc in March next year.
May said that it was her duty to deliver Brexit, and that she would seek reassurances needed by parliament to complete the process.
“It is the right deal for Britain, I am determined to do all I can to secure the reassurances this House requires to get this deal over the line and deliver for the British people,” May told parliament.
UK labour leader Jeremy Courby said if May did not take on board changes required for Brexit that she must make way for those who can.
Just hours earlier, the European Court of Justice ruled that Britain could halt withdrawal from the EU without seeking the approval of fellow member states, in a victory for anti-Brexit campaigners.
“The United Kingdom is free to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the EU,” the court said, in response to a suit from a group of Scottish politicians. “Such a revocation, decided in accordance with its own national constitutional requirements, would have the effect that the United Kingdom remains in the EU under terms that are unchanged as regards its status as a member State.”
The ruling will be reviewed urgently by Scotland’s civil court in Edinburgh. That process will kick-start what is expected to be a last-ditch legal battle by the UK government, which is likely to end in the Supreme Court.
Following a 2016 referendum, Britain declared its intention to quit the European Union on March 29 last year, triggering the article 50 EU treaty procedure that would see it definitively leave two years later, on the same date next year.
May’s government has insisted it has no intention of halting the process and agreed a draft withdrawal agreement with the 27 remaining member states.
“We don’t want to stay in the EU. We voted very clearly,” Environment Secretary Michael Gove, an influential cabinet Brexit supporter, told BBC radio after Monday’s decision. “This case is all very well but it doesn’t alter either the result of the referendum or the clear intention of the government to leave. It’s the intent of the government to honour that referendum mandate.”
The court concluded that any EU member state can revoke the article 50 process without needing approval from every other member state, in an emergency judgment that had been timed to coincide with Tuesday’s House of Commons vote on May’s Brexit deal, which is now delayed.
A vote could take place next week or even be delayed until early January, although this would allow less time for the ensuing Brexit legislation to be passed through parliament before 29 March. The ultimate deadline for the vote is 21 January.
Reacting to the reports of a possible delay, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it demonstrated “pathetic cowardice by a PM and government that have run out of road”.
The news also caused the pound to tumble to its lowest level in 18 months.
The EU judges rejected arguments from both the UK government and the European Commission that article 50, the two-year-long process that triggers a member state’s departure from the EU, could not be revoked unilaterally.
A spokeswoman for the court said any revocation “must be decided following a democratic process in accordance with national constitutional requirements”.
Monday’s decision upheld a finding by the ECJ advocate general, Manuel Campos Sanchez-Bordona, who said last week that article 50 of the Lisbon treaty allows the “unilateral revocation of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU, until such time as the withdrawal agreement is formally concluded”.
He rejected the contention that the mechanism for a member state to quit the trade bloc could only be reversed following a unanimous decision of the European council.
Scottish National Party MEP Alyn Smith, one of a cross-party group of Scottish politicians who brought the case, said it was “dynamite”.
“The timing is sublime,” he added. “As colleagues in the House of Commons consider Mrs May’s disastrous deal we now have a road map out of this Brexit shambles. A bright light has switched on above an ‘EXIT’ sign.”
Reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian