Brexit in play: parliament tries multiple choice as May's job on the line

LONDON (Reuters) – The British parliament will try to find an alternative to Theresa May’s twice-defeated Brexit deal on Wednesday as the prime minister readied a last ditch effort to win over rebels in her party, possibly by giving a timetable for quitting.

As the United Kingdom’s three-year Brexit crisis spins towards its finale, it is still uncertain how, when or even if it will leave the European Union, though May hopes to bring her deal back to parliament later this week.

With British politics at fever pitch, lawmakers on Wednesday grab control to have so-called indicative votes on Brexit, with 16 options ranging from a much closer alignment with the EU to leaving without a deal or revoking the divorce papers.

Just two days before the United Kingdom had been originally due to leave the EU on March 29, some of the most influential Brexit-supporting rebels, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, have reluctantly fallen in behind May’s deal.

The price for May could be her job, though it was unclear if even that would be enough to get her deal approved.

“We can guarantee delivering on Brexit if this week he and others in this House support the deal,” May told Andrew Bridgen, a Brexit-supporting lawmaker in her party who has called on her to resign.

It had been uncertain whether May would bring her deal back to parliament this week, having said she would only do so if it had sufficient support.

She is expected to indicate a date for her departure at a showdown with Conservative Party lawmakers at a meeting of the 1922 Committee in Westminster at around 1700 GMT.

Before that, lawmakers start a debate on what sort of EU divorce the world’s fifth largest economy should go for. They will vote at 1900 GMT on a ballot paper for as many proposals as they wish. Results will be announced after 2100 GMT.

“The prime minister might get a deal over the line on Thursday or Friday,” said Oliver Letwin, a Conservative former cabinet minister who has led parliament’s unusual power grab.

If not, lawmakers will try again on Monday to find a majority for an alternative, Letwin said.

The uncertainty around Brexit, the United Kingdom’s most significant political and economic move since World War Two, has left allies and investors aghast.

European Council chief Donald Tusk urged the European Parliament to be open to a long Brexit extension and not to ignore the British people who wanted to remain in the EU.

The campaign chief of the 2016 “Vote Leave” group, Dominic Cummings, said opponents of EU membership should start rebuilding the network and would win by a bigger margin if there was another referendum.

BREXIT FINALE?

Opponents fear Brexit will divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

Supporters say while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed experiment in European unity.

May’s deal, an attempt to soothe the divide of the 2016 referendum by leaving the formal structures of the EU while preserving close economic and security ties, was defeated in parliament by 149 votes on March 12 and by 230 votes on Jan. 15.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street, as she faces a vote on alternative Brexit options, in London, Britain, March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Dozens of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers are still opposed to May’s deal, one of the party’s lawmakers, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters, adding the “hardcore” was holding firm.

“There is no way we are going to vote for it, it’s just not going to happen,” Conservative lawmaker Mark Francois said.

It is unclear if parliament’s attempt to find an alternative will produce a majority. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow will select which of the proposals will be put to a vote.

Among the 16 options that could be voted on are a public vote on a deal, an enhanced Norway-style deal and Labour’s plan for a customs union and close alignment with the Single Market.

Brexit supporters fear the entire divorce is at risk. The government could try to ignore the votes, though if May’s deal fails then an election could be the only way to avoid parliament’s alternative proposal.

She still hopes to get her deal, struck with the EU in November after more than two years of negotiation, approved.

BREXIT DEAL?

To succeed, May needs at least 75 lawmakers to come over – dozens of rebels in her Conservative Party, some opposition Labour Party lawmakers and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.

The Sun newspaper said Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, told May the party’s lawmakers want her to set out a timetable to quit before the summer.

As Brexit supporters came behind her deal, the DUP said it was not willing to risk the integrity of the United Kingdom.

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“I am now willing to support it if the Democratic Unionist Party does,” Rees-Mogg said. Boris Johnson indicated he could come behind the deal if May gave an exit date.

If May does not get the deal approved this week, London will have until April 12 to offer a new plan or decide to leave without a treaty. If she can get it approved this week, a departure date of May 22 will apply.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it was unclear how Brexit would unfold.

“If you compare Great Britain to a sphinx then the sphinx would seem to me an open book. We will see in the course of this week how this book will speak,” he said.

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Andrew MacAskill, William Schomberg, Elisabeth O’Leary, and James Davey; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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