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Time to resign? UK PM May's final Brexit gambit bombs

Published May 22, 2019 01:31PM ET
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© Reuters. Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the Houses of Parliament in London

By William James, Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May was under growing pressure to resign on Wednesday after her final Brexit gambit was rejected across the board by lawmakers and even criticized by some of her own ministers.

May's future, which she herself had curtailed by offering to resign to get her deal through parliament, was hanging by a thread after she softened her position on a second Brexit referendum and customs arrangements with the European Union.

The calls for her resignation further deepened Britain's Brexit crisis. Almost three years since Britain voted to leave the EU and just under two months after the scheduled departure, it is not clear when, how or even if Brexit will happen.

In her last pitch on Tuesday to get her divorce deal approved by Britain's deeply divided parliament, she offered lawmakers a vote on whether to hold a second Brexit referendum -- once her legislation passes the first stage -- as well as closer trading arrangements with the EU in future as incentives.

But the backlash was swift and fierce.

Both ruling Conservative and opposition Labour lawmakers criticized May's Withdrawal Agreement Bill, or WAB, legislation which implements the terms of Britain's twice-delayed departure.

"There is one last chance to get it right and leave in an orderly fashion. But it is now time for Prime Minister Theresa May to go -- and without delay," said Conservative lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

"She must announce her resignation after Thursday's European (Parliament) elections," he wrote in the Financial Times.

May's latest offer has enraged eurosceptics opposed to a second referendum, and fails to go far enough for those who want to give the public another say in the hope of stopping Brexit altogether.

Even some of her ministers criticized the pitch, one source close to the cabinet said, explaining that they felt the concessions had gone much further than they had agreed at a meeting on Tuesday. Another source said May had canceled meetings with senior cabinet colleagues on Wednesday evening.

STANDING FIRM

May stood firm during more than two hours of questions in parliament, urging lawmakers to back the bill and then have a chance to make changes to it, so they can have more control over the final shape of Brexit.

"In time another prime minister will be standing at this despatch box," May said, acknowledging that her leadership was drawing to a close.

"But while I am here, I have a duty to be clear with the House (of Commons) about the facts. If we are going to deliver Brexit in this parliament we are going to have to pass a Withdrawal Agreement Bill," she told MPs.

May has so far fended off attempts to oust her by promising to set out a departure timetable once parliament has had a chance to vote on the legislation.

Asked by eurosceptic lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg whether she really believed in the new deal she had proposed or whether she was simply going through the motions, May said:

"I don't think I would have been standing here at the despatch box and be in receipt of some of the comments I have been in receipt of from colleagues on my own side and across the house if I didn't believe in what I was doing."

"GOT TO GO"

Britain's marathon crisis over Brexit has stunned allies and foes alike. With the deadlock in London, the world's fifth-largest economy faces an array of options including an exit with a deal to smooth the transition, a no-deal exit, an election, a second referendum, or even revocation of the Article 50 notice to leave the EU.

The pound was on track for its longest-ever losing streak against the euro as some traders said they saw the rising chance of a no-deal Brexit. Those fears pushed investors into the relative safety of government bonds -- particularly those that offer protection against a spike in inflation.

There were some signs of support for May in parliament, but swathes of empty Conservative benches during Wednesday's debate underlined the fact that many of her fiercest critics had decided to stay away.

"The proposed second reading of the WAB is clearly doomed to failure so there really is no point wasting any more time on the prime minister's forlorn hope of salvation," Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative lawmaker, told Reuters. "She's got to go."

More Conservative lawmakers handed over letters to the 1922 Committee, a Conservative group that can make or break party leaders, to demand a no-confidence vote in May.

Asked about the pressure to resign, her spokesman said: "The PM is focused on the job in hand and what the last 24 hours or so have proved, it is a big one."

Time to resign? UK PM May's final Brexit gambit bombs
 

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