LONDON (Reuters) – In a week when Brexit was plunged into deeper uncertainty, eurosceptics in Theresa May’s Conservative Party are eyeing their dream scenario – a new prime minister and a new deal to leave the European Union.
After parliament’s speaker made it even harder for May to get her EU divorce agreement approved by reluctant lawmakers, some pro-Brexit Conservatives have embraced the possibility of a delay, hailing it as a chance to reset talks under a new leader.
It is a risky strategy – a weakened May has been calling members of the so-called European Research Group of eurosceptic lawmakers to warn them that without her deal, they risk losing Brexit to pro-EU lawmakers in the parliament.
And by no means all eurosceptics will back their calls – others fear a long extension could risk Brexit and further destabilize a deeply divided and increasingly angry Britain, which voted 52-48 percent to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
But some are vocal in their desires, saying after becoming numb to the warnings, threats and promises directed by an increasingly desperate team at the prime minister’s Downing Street office, they now see only one solution – May, and her Brexit deal, must go.
“From my perspective, I would prefer a lengthy extension to a transitional arrangement because it gives us more leverage,” said a Conservative former minister and Brexit supporter.
“I think that inside the EU we could have much more heft and particularly, as is probably the case, the prime minister isn’t around too much longer and there is a successor … Under a new leader we would say: ‘well, you know that Withdrawal Agreement that we said we were happy with, well we’re not now’.”
According to Brexit supporter Andrew Bridgen, May’s parliamentary enforcers, or whips, have promised some Conservatives that the prime minister would leave office in return for their support for the deal.
But that offer is not good enough.
While his first preference is to leave with no deal on March 29 to avoid further splits in the Conservative Party, he said: “Then I prefer a long extension to a bad deal because at least we’ll be able to get out.”
“As soon as we sign that Withdrawal Agreement we can’t get out, we’re never out, because they’ve got a veto on us getting out,” Bridgen told Reuters.
DEAL, NO DEAL, NO BREXIT
May has been trying to resuscitate her Brexit deal, which sees close economic ties with the EU, after lawmakers crushed it first in January by the largest margin in modern history and then again last week by 149 votes.
Fighting against those who describe the deal – which Brexit supporters fear could trap Britain in the EU’s economic sphere indefinitely – as “dead”, May and other members of her team have been phoning and messaging to try to rally support.
Eurosceptics have been approached, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government, has been locked in talks with ministers and opposition Labour lawmakers have been enticed with investment offers in an attempt to win over parliament for a third vote.
But Speaker John Bercow raised another barrier on Monday when he ruled that the government could not present the same deal again and it would have to be changed in some way.
Against some expectations, the ruling boosted many eurosceptics. While Downing Street wanted to portray it as a threat to Britain’s departure from the EU, pro-Brexit lawmakers saw it as a potential existential threat to May’s administration.
“All I know for certain are three things: May has got to go, we are going to have a new prime minister and I can’t see us getting out of this issue without a general election,” said Bridgen. “Brexit now depends on who the new prime minister is.”
May has consistently said she does not want a new election, something that can only be triggered by a successful no confidence vote against the government or the government asking for, and securing, parliament’s approval for a new poll.
For some lawmakers, particularly those who won their place in parliament with only a small majority, the prospect of an election is uncomfortable.
“I am very anxious that if we go into a long extension we might have an election, the pressure to revisit the question (of Brexit) increases, the whole thing becomes at risk, and also there’s a massive political price,” said another ex-minister.
“You’re telling 17.4 million people who voted to leave that five years later you’ll still be a member. You can understand the fury. It would do real damage to both parties but in particular the Conservatives, as the government that failed to deliver it.”
Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Janet Lawrence
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