LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May abruptly decided on Monday to pull a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal, throwing Britains plan to leave the European Union up in the air on the eve of the vote after repeated warnings from members of parliament she faced a rout.
While there was no immediate official announcement, a source in Whitehall, the centre of British power, said the vote would be delayed, a decision the government could take without having to get the approval of parliament.
The move thrusts the United Kingdoms divorce from the European Union into chaos, with possible options including a disorderly Brexit with no deal, another referendum on EU membership, or a last minute renegotiation of Mays deal.
Mays own position could face a swift challenge. Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the United Kingdom no longer had “a functioning government”.
A small Northern Irish party which props up Mays Conservative minority government called the situation a shambles. Scottish nationalists pledged to support a vote to bring the government down.
Corbyn said: “The government has decided Theresa Mays Brexit deal is so disastrous that it has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the eleventh hour.”
Sterling GBP=D3 skidded to its weakest level since June, 2017, falling to $1.2622.
The decision to halt the vote came just hours after the EUs top court ruled that Britain could unilaterally withdraw its decision to leave the bloc on March, 29.
Mays government called that ruling meaningless because Britain has no intention of halting Brexit. But critics of her plans said the ruling opens options, including delaying the exit for more talks, or calling it off if voters change their minds.
After repeated warnings that the Dec. 11 vote in parliament would humiliate her government as opponents and supporters of Brexit joined in opposition to her deal, May convened a conference call with senior ministers on Monday.
She was due to give a statement to parliament at 1530 GMT on “Exiting the EU.” Afterwards, the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, who organises business in parliament on the governments behalf, was due to speak.
If May stays in power, she could seek to get a better deal from the EU at a summit on Dec. 13-14, in the hope of putting it before parliament at a later date.
EU diplomats and officials said the part of the deal that is most contentious in Britain – a “backstop” to ensure no hard land border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the EU-member Irish Republic – must remain in place. Mays opponents say the backstop could leave Britain subject indefinitely to EU rules, long after it gives up say in drafting them.
“Extremely hard to imagine any watering down of the backstop,” an EU diplomat dealing with Brexit said.
Brexit is Britains important decision since World War Two. Supporters say it frees Britain to trade more widely with the rest of the world; opponents say it will make Britain poorer and divide a West grappling with Donald Trumps unconventional presidency and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
The ultimate outcome will shape Britains $2.8 trillion (2.21 trillion pounds) economy, have far reaching consequences for the unity of the United Kingdom and determine whether London can keep its place as one of the top two global financial centres.
Just hours before May decided to cancel the vote, the EU court ruled that Britain could cancel its official Article 50 notice to leave the bloc without permission from the other EU members and without losing any special privileges.
That went against the position of the EUs own executive Commission, which said Britain would need approval from other members to halt Brexit. European leaders had argued London should lose perks agreed over the years, such as a valuable rebate on its dues, if it cancels withdrawal.
The timing of the court ruling on the eve of the scheduled parliament vote was no coincidence: the court said it expedited its decision to ensure British lawmakers knew their options.
Mays Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt called the ruling “irrelevant” because Britain will leave on schedule no matter what, and to do otherwise would disrespect the majority that voted to do so.
In the June 23, 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, backed staying. More than two years since, the United Kingdom remains divided on how or even whether it should leave the club it first joined in 1973. Polls show few voters have changed their minds, despite warnings of economic turmoil.
Both Mays ruling Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party are publicly committed to carrying out Brexit. A no-deal Brexit, though, is seen as so disruptive to business that parliament would be under strong pressure to block it.
A growing number of backbench members of parliament say the only solution would be a new referendum, an option backed by three of the four living former prime ministers but strongly opposed by the government.
Michael Gove, the most prominent Brexit campaigner in Mays cabinet, said the court ruling “doesnt alter either the referendum vote or the clear intention of the government to leave on March 29”.
Additional reporting by Costas Pitas, William James, Ben Martin, Andy MacAskill, Alastair MacDonald and Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff
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