Crash Brexit unlikely as May loses control at Westminster

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In a day of dramatic developments, the Westminster parliament has rejected leaving the European Union without a deal under any circumstances. It is a heavy defeat for British Prime Minister Theresa May, just as her government sought to threaten Ireland and the EU with that very scenario.

In a surprise move, the Commons voted 312 to 308 -- a majority of just four -- in favour of an amendment blocking a no-deal Brexit. The vote was later confirmed when the Tory government opposed its its own amended motion with a three-line whip, and incredibly lost by an even more emphatic 321 votes to 278.

There is still considerable uncertainty, however, as the Withdrawal Agreement as currently negotiated was voted down yesterday by a large majority of 149 MPs. That rejection came despite May securing a last-minute dilution of the ‘backstop’, the policy intended to prevent a remilitarisation of the border through Ireland. That is still opposed by hardline Tories and the unionist DUP, on whom May’s government depends for support.

MPs are expected to vote tomorrow to delay Brexit until mid-May, although the situation at Westminster remain fluid and unpredictable, and tonight’s votes are not considered to be legally binding on the government.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition British Labour party, said that the parliament must now take full control of the Brexit process. He said his party will work across the House of Commons to seek a compromise solution, which would see Britain and the north of Ireland remain in the EU Customs Union and without new controls at the border through Ireland.

But if no cross-party deal can be reached, Labour has said a proposal for a second Brexit referendum also remains a very strong possibility.

Tonight’s votes took place shortly after Britain threatened proposals for heavy tariffs on trade with Ireland in a no-deal scenario. Business leaders in the North said the plan would lead to economic chaos and create a black-market economy around the Border.

The proposals claimed that there were would be no “new checks or controls on goods at the land border”, including no customs requirements for “nearly all goods”. This would leave the EU and Dublin to take the wrath of border residents for imposing their border checks, at least initially.

The European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Ireland’s Phil Hogan, condemned the “draconian regime” of tariffs, which he said were intended to “frighten Ireland” into further concessions ahead of a no-deal Brexit on March 29.

The Irish Farmers Association said the tariffs, if implemented, would destroy Ireland’s beef industry and would decimate Ireland’s agribusiness generally.

Incredibly, the plans also indicated Britain would treat trade across the border substantially differently to trade across the Irish Sea, despite this being a key factor in the DUP’s opposition to the negotiated deal.

Hogan said the contradictions of the proposal “beggars belief”.

“We don’t even know if it’s legal, if it’s compatible with the World Trade Organisation rules,” Mr Hogan said. “I think this is an ill-thought out proposal to change the news cycle in London.”

Sinn Fein’s Matt Carthy described the proposal as the latest example of ‘game-playing’ on the part of Theresa May’s government.

Separately, British Minister Michael Gove threatened his government would impose full Direct Rule on the north of Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Sinn Fein said this showed the British government had abandoned any pretence of commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Fein’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, said the comments, coming on the back of what she said were “blatant attempts” by Tories to defend the “illegal actions” of British Crown Forces during the conflict, were conclusive evidence that the London government had “turned its back on the principles underpinning the Good Friday Agreement”.

But the Tory strategy appears to have been compromised by the votes tonight at Westminster.

Speaking from the US, where he has begun the traditional meetings and engagements for St Patrick’s Day, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said tonight the situation was “brighter”. But he was also highly critical of the British approach.

“There is a supreme irony in that the proposals produced by the British government today propose to treat Northern Ireland differently from the United Kingdom when it comes to customs,” he said.

He also insisted the tariff proposals would not put his government under pressure.

“I think that it’s evident from events across the water that its the UK that’s under pressure. The UK government in particular is under pressure with members of the governing party and many cabinet ministers not voting with the government so I think they’re the ones that are under pressure, not us.”

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