LONDON/BRUSSELS – Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy came under attack from all sides Monday, increasing the risk that her plan for leaving the European Union will be voted down by parliament and thrust the United Kingdom towards a potentially chaotic “no-deal” Brexit.
Less than five months before Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, negotiators are still haggling over a backup plan for the land border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, if they fail to clinch a deal.
May’s compromise Brexit plan, which seeks to leave the EU but keep closer trade ties, is facing opposition from Brexiteers, pro-Europeans, the Northern Irish party that props up her government, and even some of her own ministers.
Asked if there was any chance May’s plan could pass parliament, former education minister Justine Greening, who supported staying in the European Union, said “no.”
“I think it’s the worst of all worlds,” Greening told BBC radio. “It leaves us with less influence, less controls over the rules we have to follow.”
Sterling plunged to a 1½-week low of $1.2841 as the dollar strengthened broadly and doubts grew over May’s ability to clinch a Brexit deal and get it passed.
Traders cited a report by the Independent newspaper that May had been forced to cancel an emergency Cabinet meeting to approve a draft deal. A government source later said no Cabinet meeting had ever been scheduled for Monday.
The Brexit deal — or the lack of one — will shape Britain’s prosperity for generations to come.
Economists polled by Reuters last week said there remains a one-in-four chance that London and Brussels will fail to reach a deal on the terms of departure.
Both sides need an agreement to keep trade flowing between the world’s biggest trading bloc and the fifth-largest global economy. The other 27 members of the EU combined have about five times the economic might of Britain.
But May has struggled to untangle nearly 46 years of membership without damaging trade or upsetting the lawmakers who will ultimately decide the fate of any deal she can secure.
While May has for months faced fierce opposition from Brexit-supporting lawmakers, who say she has betrayed the referendum result by seeking such close ties with the EU, she is now facing increasing pressure from pro-Europeans too.
Jo Johnson, the younger brother of leading Brexiteer and former foreign minister Boris, resigned from May’s government last Friday, calling in a withering critique for another referendum to prevent her Brexit plans unleashing Britain’s biggest crisis since World War II.
If a deal is voted down by parliament, the United Kingdom will face an uncertain future: leaving abruptly without a deal, the collapse of May’s government, an election, or, as some opponents of Brexit hope, a new referendum.
Brexiteers say leaving without a deal might be damaging in the short term but that in the longer term it would be better than signing up to obey rules from the EU for decades to come.
It is unlikely that there will be a breakthrough in negotiations this month, with any deal probably pushed back into December, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said Monday.
“We are waiting for new news from London. … We have time, but not so much. For this month, it’s very difficult to make real progress, but before Christmas I’m hoping that it will be possible,” Reynders told reporters before a meeting of national ministers on Brexit in Brussels.
EU leaders had previously pencilled in a summit for November to sign off on a deal with London as long as there was decisive progress. However, Brussels and London cannot agree how to guarantee there is no return of border controls on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.