January 15, 2019 / 1:21 PM / 3 months ago

Breakingviews - Brexit defeat will begin process of elimination

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, Britain, December 12, 2018. HANDOUT

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Theresa May’s looming Brexit defeat will begin a process of elimination. Britain’s parliament is on Tuesday expected to reject the prime minister’s plan to leave the European Union. The historic vote will offer few pointers about which alternatives politicians prefer. But it will at least force them to test – and discard – some of their rapidly shrinking options.

Two-and-a-half years after Britain voted to leave the EU, and just 73 days before it is formally due to depart, parliament will finally have its say on the Brexit deal. Yet the lawmakers who oppose it do so for very different reasons. Some complain the plan could indefinitely lock the country into a customs union with the EU. Others believe Britain should not be leaving at all. The scale of May’s defeat will therefore offer little clarity about the path ahead.

Indeed, the prime minister’s most likely response to losing the vote will be to try again – possibly after securing more concessions from the EU. The problem is that it’s far from clear what modifications – if any – would help May secure a majority. Her eurosceptic opponents want to restrict the “backstop” which avoids a hard border in Northern Ireland to a set period. But others are pushing for a softer Brexit which would involve remaining in a customs union and the EU’s single market. It’s impossible for Brussels to appease both groups.

The Labour party is expected to respond to May’s defeat by calling a vote of confidence in the government. If the prime minister survives, that would at least eliminate the possibility of an early election. If Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accepts that he cannot win power, he may then endorse a softer Brexit, or another referendum. Either way, parliament seems set to exert greater control over May’s hapless government.

Barring an extension to the March 29 deadline, however, Britain will crash out of the EU without a deal unless an alternative plan secures a majority in parliament. To reach a consensus, lawmakers need to rule out less viable alternatives. They don’t have much time.

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