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British PM May battles to keep control of Brexit

As speculation swirled around Theresa May’s future, parliament prepared to try to take control of the Brexit process from the government in a series of votes.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: AFP.

LONDON - Prime Minister Theresa May battled to keep control of Britain’s exit from the European Union on Monday as some in her party called on her to quit and parliament plotted to wrest the Brexit process away from her government.

At one of the most important junctures for the country in at least a generation, British politics was at fever pitch and, nearly three years since the 2016 EU membership referendum, it was still unclear how, when or if Brexit will take place.

With May weakened, ministers lined up to insist she was still in charge and to deny any part in, or knowledge of, a reported plot to demand she name a date to leave office.

As speculation swirled around May’s future, parliament prepared to try to take control of the Brexit process from the government in a series of votes due from 2200 GMT.

May’s divided cabinet of senior ministers met on Monday to discuss a way forward, May’s spokesman said, though contradictory reports of the discussions - which are supposed to remain private - were swiftly published on Twitter.

“The PM opened by suggesting that no deal is not a viable option,” the Daily Telegraph’s deputy political editor Steven Swinford said. “Other ministers said no deal is better than no Brexit.” Other reports said her cabinet “war-gamed” an election.

Amid the chaos, it was unclear when May would bring her divorce deal back to parliament. The deal May negotiated with the EU was defeated in parliament by 149 votes on 12 March and by 230 votes on 15 January.

“We will only bring the vote back if we believe that we would be in a position to win it,” May’s spokesman said, declining to comment on whether it would take place on Tuesday.

DUP STILL OPPOSED

May had to delay Britain’s original 29 March departure date because of the deadlock in London. Now, the country will leave the EU on 22 May if May’s deal is approved by parliament this week. If not, Britain will have until 12 April to offer a new plan or decide to leave without a treaty.

To get the deal passed, she must win over at least 75 MPs - dozens of rebels in her Conservative Party, some opposition Labour Party MPs and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.

May had a call with DUP leader Arlene Foster after the cabinet meeting, but a party spokesman said he did not see the DUP supporting the deal. To hold a vote on Tuesday, the government must present an emergency business motion by the close of business on Monday.

Days before 29 March, British ministers and lawmakers were still publicly discussing an array of options including leaving with May’s deal, with no deal, revoking the Article 50 divorce papers, calling another referendum or going for a closer relationship with the EU.

The EU believes a no-deal Brexit is increasingly likely, EU officials said.

“We don’t want a no-deal Brexit, we’d much rather have the Withdrawal Agreement, but if it is to be a no deal, let’s do it quickly,” the EU official said of the bloc’s approach.

“Time’s up, Theresa,” Rupert Murdoch’s influential The Sun newspaper said in a front-page editorial. It said her one chance of getting her Brexit deal approved by parliament was to name a date for her departure.

Some lawmakers publicly called for her to go.

“The prime minister does not have the confidence of the parliamentary party,” said Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative lawmaker who supports Brexit.

“She clearly doesn’t have the confidence of the cabinet and she certainly doesn’t have the confidence of our members out there in the country.”

UK DIVIDED

The United Kingdom, which voted 52-48% to leave the EU in the referendum, remains deeply divided over Brexit.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched through London on Saturday to demand another referendum and on Sunday, May called Brexit-supporting rebel lawmakers to her Chequers residence in an attempt to break the deadlock. It was unclear what was agreed if anything.

Members of Parliament (MPs) are expected to vote on possible ways forward on Monday. Conservative lawmaker Oliver Letwin’s amendment seeks to change the rules of parliament on March 27 to provide time for lawmakers to debate and vote on different options.

A British government source said MPs were likely to pass Letwin’s amendment. Parliament Speaker John Bercow will announce at around 1530 GMT whether he has selected any amendments to be voted on.

One way to counter parliament would be for May to try to offer her own version of indicative votes. The prospect of a softer Brexit would also increase pressure on the Brexit-supporting lawmakers in her party to get behind her deal.

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