Brexit's day of reckoning

As UK prepares to finalise its Brexit agreement, Theresa May continues to swim in a soup of diverse opinions with no clear solution

British Prime minister Theresa May, who is fighting for her political life but is in no mood to throw in the towel, has warned that a failure to deliver Brexit would be "a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy". She is still expecting last-minute assurances from the European Union on the Northern Ireland 'backstop' issue. Also at stake is the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which ended decades of strife and turmoil in Southern and Northern Ireland. In the event of her deal being rejected by the Commons, she could be asked to come up with any Plan B that she may have.

Writing in the Sunday Express, she urged her fellow parliamentarians to back her Brexit deal in Tuesday's crunch Commons vote. Not doing so risks the UK leaving EU with no deal or Brexit not happening at all, she said. "When you turned out to vote in the (2016) referendum, you did so because you wanted your voice to be heard. Some of you put your trust in the political process for the first time in decades. We cannot — and must not — let you down."

Her warning follows an even more strident alarm raised by cabinet colleague Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, that the UK faces "Brexit paralysis" if MPs reject her EU deal. He said that the two Commons defeats last week showed that Parliament was "committed one way or another to try to stop the no-deal". But that would risk "no Brexit", he argued, which would be a "breach of trust" with the public.

Party faithful but rebel MP Dominic Grieve sounded an even more stark warning that going ahead with a no-deal Brexit would be "national suicide", which must be stopped. He was addressing a rally of supporters calling for a fresh referendum. The prime minister, he said, had done her best in negotiating the deal to honour the 2016 referendum result, but the "unpleasant truth" was that "it can satisfy no-one". "There is only one way out," he said."When the prime minister's deal is defeated, what else can we possibly offer to the British public which has any coherence at all but to go back and ask them to reconsider their decision?"

With less than 75 days to go, May is being openly opposed by more than 100 Conservative MPs. Earlier last week, the prime minister had met some Labour MPs and union leaders to garner cross-party support for her deal. But, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn was stepping up calls for a general election to "break the deadlock".

Outside encouragement for May came from Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who said that the "whole world" hoped a no-deal Brexit would be avoided. The UK is set to leave the European Union on March 29, with a 20-month transition period, if the deal goes through. A no-deal Brexit would see the UK leave without a withdrawal agreement and start trading with EU on the basis of World Trade Organisation rules, an outcome favoured by some Brexiteers.

The hope is that depending on the parliamentary vote, EU would issue a firm signal that the Northern Ireland backstop would not last indefinitely. Under the backstop, which is designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Northern Ireland would be closely bound into the EU if the UK and EU fail to agree upon a comprehensive new relationship by the end of the transition in December 2020. The backstop is being described as a temporary arrangement, but EU is insisting that it would last unless and until a replacement trade deal is agreed upon.

Northern Ireland DUP leader Arlene Foster said last week that May's Brexit backstop plan was already 'dead.' From Southern Ireland came the blast that Britain had decided to "tear up" the Good Friday Agreement by going ahead with Brexit, according to former Irish prime minister John Burton. Bruton said that the Brexit vote had "negated" the 1998 referendum held in NI and Ireland, which showed a majority in favour of the peace agreement. He argued a no deal would lead to a hard border on the island.

"Unfortunately, in Ireland, we had no say in this [Brexit] — the British people decided on this freely. In so doing, they effectively negated a referendum we had in Ireland. We changed our Constitution to make that deal and Britain, then comes along, unilaterally and essentially deciding to tear that up by proceeding with Brexit… and that's why we have insisted on a backstop to protect the Good Friday Agreement so that Britain can't do that," the former Taoiseach said in anguish.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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