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Britain's May suffers parliament defeat as Brexit debate restarts

Key Points
  • Lawmakers force government to speed up plan B.
  • Parliament due to vote on Brexit on Jan. 15.
  • Northern Irish DUP tells May: Drop the backstop.
  • Lawmakers create new obstacle to no-deal Brexit.
Pro-EU supporters outside the British Parliament buildings in London on Dec. 12, 2018. 
Mike Newberg | CNBC

British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered an early defeat to her Brexit plans on Wednesday, when lawmakers demanded the government come up with a plan B within days if she loses a vote on her deal to leave the European Union.

With less than three months before Britain is due to leave the EU, parliament kicked off a five-day battle over May's Brexit plan with a show of force - undermining her preferred timetable if lawmakers vote down her deal on Tuesday.

May has refused to retreat from her unpopular deal, which envisages close trading ties with the EU after leaving in March, pressing ahead with the vote that she looks set to lose after failing to win over her nominal Northern Irish allies.

Losing the vote would deepen the uncertainty over the future of Brexit, Britain's biggest shift in foreign and trade policy for more than 40 years, and opens the way for several different outcomes, ranging from a disorderly exit to another referendum.

Lawmakers voted 308-297 in favour of demanding the government come up with an alternative plan within three working days after Tuesday's vote, rather than a planned 21-day limit, a largely symbolic vote aimed at putting pressure on the government.

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There were turbulent scenes in parliament when some in May's Conservative Party accused the speaker of bias.

May's spokesman said the government's advice was that parliament could not change its so-called business motion which set out the procedure for the Brexit vote, but played down the impact of the vote for its overall plans.

"We are doing everything we can to win the meaningful vote that happens on Tuesday," the spokesman said. "But it is also the intention, if that were not to take place, that we respond quickly to provide certainty on the way forward following that vote."

Combined with a vote late on Tuesday when the government lost on the finance bill, the defeats underline May's precarious position in parliament and the difficult she will have in winning approval for her Brexit deal.

Alternatives

The opposition Labour Party has said that it will immediately table a vote of no confidence in the government if May loses the vote.

With the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit rising, the EU is looking at how Brexit might be postponed, and pro-EU campaigners are testing ways Britain could hold another referendum after voters narrowly backed leaving in 2016.

Earlier on Tuesday, May called on lawmakers to vote for her deal, suggesting she was confident of getting further assurances from the EU to ease their concerns and offering Northern Ireland more control over the "backstop" arrangement to prevent the return of a hard border with EU member Ireland.

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"I've been in contact with European leaders ... about MPs' (members of parliament) concerns. These discussions have shown that further clarification over the backstop is possible and those talks will continue over the next few days," May said.

But Northern Irish politicians were swift to dismiss her proposals to offer Northern Ireland a "strong voice and role in any decision to bring the backstop into effect".

Sammy Wilson, the Brexit spokesman for Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, said: "The only thing which could swing the DUP round is if the backstop as it applies to the United Kingdom as a whole or to Northern Ireland specifically were removed from this agreement."

Wilson, one of 10 DUP lawmakers propping up May's minority government, cast as "window dressing" her proposals to give the Northern Irish assembly the power to vote against new EU rules if the border backstop comes into force after Brexit.

Her deal, he said, was "ruinous".

Fantasies

Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 at 2300 GMT.

May told lawmakers that parliament had a choice: backing her deal or risk Britain leaving the bloc without a deal, a scenario many businesses say would disrupt supply chains and hinder investment in the world's fifth largest economy.

May's de-facto deputy said it was a delusion to think the government would be able to negotiate a new divorce deal if parliament voted down hers.

"I don't think the British public are served by fantasies about magical, alternative deals that are somehow going to spring out of a cupboard in Brussels," Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said in an interview with BBC radio.

The government needs 318 votes to get a deal through the 650-seat House of Commons, as seven members of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein do not sit, four speakers and deputy speakers do not vote and the four tellers are not counted.

Some investors and major banks believe May's deal will be defeated on Tuesday but that eventually it will be approved.

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