UK's May offers more say for MPs to save Brexit deal

Alice RITCHIE
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Theresa May proposed MPs vote on the Irish border "backstop" arrangements, as she fought to save her Brexit deal

British Prime Minister Theresa May sought Thursday to woo MPs with a promise of more power over the next stage of Brexit as she fought to save her EU withdrawal deal ahead of a crucial parliamentary vote next week.

May said lawmakers could have a greater say over an arrangement to avoid border checks with Ireland that could see Britain tied to EU rules for years after it leaves the bloc in March.

The so-called backstop is the key reason many of her own Conservative MPs and her Northern Irish allies opposed the divorce deal, putting her on course for defeat in Tuesday's vote.

"People are concerned about the role of the UK in making these decisions. And the obvious, in terms of the UK, is for it to be parliament that makes these decisions," May told BBC radio.

Ministers admit the deal struck with Brussels last month is not perfect but say it is the only option for an orderly Brexit after four decades of membership.

Civil servants on Thursday briefed senior MPs and ministers on plans for a "no deal scenario", which some commentators suggested would focus minds on the implications of rejecting the agreement.

But the scale of the threatened defeat has left some speculating whether May could postpone the vote.

Senior Conservative MP Graham Brady, said he would welcome deferring the vote if it meant clarifying the issue of the backstop.

Former prime minister Tony Blair told reporters at an event in parliament: "Personally I don't see what the point is of going down with a huge defeat."

- Vote on the future -

In Brussels, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the deal was "the only and best agreement possible".

"Now is the moment for everyone to take their responsibilities," he told a committee of regional representatives.

But the European Court of Justice may yet throw a spanner in the works with a ruling due Monday on whether London has the right to simply call off the entire Brexit process.

May has rejected the idea. But with her deal facing defeat and Brussels not budging, the premier's range of options appears to be shrinking.

May commands a slim majority in the House of Commons thanks to a deal with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but the DUP is fiercely opposed to her plan.

The opposition Labour Party has said it could propose a confidence vote if May loses next week.

Her chance to convince Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to give her more time in a one-on-one TV debate, which had been expected on Sunday, vanished when the second of two channels in discussions about carrying it live pulled out Thursday.

Corbyn and May had spent more than a week arguing about the potential debate's format.

But the premier received some good news when the DUP's parliamentary deputy leader Nigel Dodds said his party would back May in a confidence vote if one comes after her deal is defeated.

"Having achieved our aim trying to get to a better deal, it would be illogical then to turn around the next day and say 'let's vote the government out'," he told ITV.

"I think then we start on a process to try to get a better deal."

- 'Just not possible' -

The backstop is an arrangement intended to avoid border checks between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland by keeping both in a customs arrangement after Brexit.

It would only come into effect if London and Brussels fail to agree a new trading relationship by the end of a post-Brexit transition period, in December 2020.

But official government legal advice says the backstop could see Britain left indefinitely in the new customs arrangement, with no power to unilaterally withdraw.

Under May's deal, if the new trade deal is not ready in June 2020, Britain will have an option to extend the transition for up to two years to avoid going into the backstop.

May has suggested parliament make that choice, but former foreign minister and leading Brexit supporter Boris Johnson rejected that idea.

"This is simply not possible," he tweeted.

"Under her deal, the EU has the legal right to stop us extending the transition and make us enter the backstop -- whatever the PM or parliament says."