UK says Brexit defeat in parliament ‘a hiccup’

The clock is ticking down to March 29 when Britain is set to leave the European Union. (AFP pic)

LONDON: The British government on Friday dismissed as a “hiccup” its latest parliamentary defeat over Brexit, saying it would press on with trying to renegotiate its EU divorce deal as exit day looms in just six weeks.

But as Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to return to Brussels next week, a senior minister conceded the latest display of divisions in London risked affecting the talks.

“Yesterday was more of a hiccup than the disaster that’s being reported,” Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, told BBC radio.

She added: “The one problem with last night’s vote is that it allows the EU to continue with this pretence that they don’t know what we want. And they do know what we want.”

On Thursday night, MPs rejected a motion expressing support for May’s efforts to seek changes to her Brexit deal, after members of her own Conservative party abstained.

Downing Street insisted the original mandate MPs gave to May on January 29, to amend the so-called backstop plan to keep Britain’s border with Ireland free-flowing after Brexit, still stood.

But the defeat exposed once again how far parliament remains from any agreement on Brexit, fuelling growing frustration in the EU.

“It is unbelievable really that the British government and the British parliament have allowed it to come to this,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in Dublin.

‘No-deal Brexit is crazy’

After MPs overwhelmingly rejected May’s withdrawal deal on January 15, she promised to amend the backstop which, as drafted, risks keeping Britain tied indefinitely to EU trade rules.

But Brussels has repeatedly said it will not change the withdrawal agreement agreed last November after almost two years of tough negotiations.

And despite Britain being scheduled to leave the bloc on March 29, May has yet to present a viable alternative plan.

The impasse raises the real risk that Britain severs ties with its closest trading partner in a six weeks time with no new arrangements in place.

“A ‘no deal’ Brexit is crazy and needs to be avoided and in my view will be avoided,” Coveney said.

“But we simply don’t know how yet because the British parliament itself doesn’t even know what its asking for.”

With pressure mounting on all sides to make some progress, Leadsom told the BBC that the prime minister would return to Brussels for talks “within days”.

May has also had phone calls with numerous EU leaders this week, including Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Brexit minister Stephen Barclay will meet EU negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday, while opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will visit the Frenchman on Thursday.

The government motion put to MPs on Thursday night sought to reaffirm the mandate given to May on January 29 to renegotiate her deal.

But there were two votes that day last month: for a new plan for the Irish border, but also to request that Britain avoid a “no deal” scenario.

This angered Conservative MPs who believe the government must keep “no deal” as an option and so they abstained, leading to May’s defeat.