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British Prime Minister Theresa May faces Brexit rebellion over new exit delay

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/11/2019 Michael Birnbaum, William Booth
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BRUSSELS — She commands trust neither at home nor abroad. Her own cabinet is a breeding ground for rivals jousting to replace her. And in Brussels, diplomats discount her acumen and treat her as a problem to be solved, not a partner to work with.

And so it was that British Prime Minister Theresa May returned to London on Thursday, faced with a barrage of questions about her political future after another Brexit-infused humiliation.

The day before, May was forced by European Union leaders to accept a delay of up to six months for the Brits to extract themselves — once and for all — from the European Union. Now, getting meager credit for sparing her country the pain of a no-deal departure scheduled for the end of the week had she not groveled in Brussels, she resumed her daily toil. Standing in front of lawmakers in the House of Commons, she offered no new twists to her strategy, as one ardent Brexiteer called her trip to the E.U. capital an “abject surrender.” 

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“I know the whole country is intensely frustrated that this process to leave the European Union has not still been completed,” May said Thursday, just hours after striking the early-in-the-morning deal with her fellow E.U. leaders in Brussels. “I never wanted to seek this extension — and I deeply regret that we have not yet been able to secure agreement in this House for a deal that would allow us to leave in a smooth and orderly way.”

Theresa May, David Lidington standing on top of a cutting board with a cake: British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons as she updates lawmakers on Brexit. © Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons as she updates lawmakers on Brexit. She said she would keep talking with the Labour Party about a compromise that could leave Britain more closely enmeshed with the European Union than many Brexit advocates desire.

She said that if those talks break down, she would put a series of alternatives to a vote.

And she urged restive lawmakers — newly freed from Brexit pressure and on the cusp of an Easter holiday — to put their feet up and come back ready to bargain.

Acceding to a six-month delay — May really had no choice — gives the prime minister some breathing room. But it also raises new challenges for the weakened leader.

She vowed that Britain would leave in an orderly Brexit on March 29. Then May 22.

“As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay any further than June 30,” May said last month.

Now it appears that date will be delayed to Halloween unless British lawmakers approve an exit deal in the meantime. On Thursday, she refused to rule out asking for even more time.

She previously promised Conservative lawmakers that Britain would not participate in European elections. Now it appears they will.

“Will she resign?” the Conservative pro-Brexit lawmaker Bill Cash asked in an angry interchange with May in Parliament.

“I think you know the answer to that,” May snapped back. (The answer was no.)

But some of May’s ex-backers appeared to have sharpened their knives while she was busy in Brussels.

“The pressure on her to go will increase dramatically, I suspect, now,” after the deal, May’s former Brexit secretary David Davis told the BBC. He said he didn’t think she could cling to power long past the May elections for the European Parliament, which he predicted would deliver an eruption of support for Euroskeptics.

But many Tories fear an implosion in those elections. An early-warning light could come in May 2 local elections in Britain, three weeks before those for the E.U. body. Conservatives’ forecasts look gloomy in the locals, too, according to polls.

“I think it will be very difficult for her,” Davis said.

Some Europeans fear that in offering Britain six months — shorter than many leaders wanted but longer than what French President Emmanuel Macron desired — they may have increased the chance of a no-deal exit: Now Parliament faces little immediate pressure to act, but Britain will not have enough time for a full rethink of its Brexit approach, including a second referendum or a general election.

As if to play to those worries, the immediate danger of mutiny against May appeared blunted by Parliament’s desire to speed off to vacation.

“Please do not waste this time,” European Council President Donald Tusk told British lawmakers early Thursday as he announced the reprieve.

Hours later, British lawmakers embarked on their break. Parliament will be back in business April 23 — to start several days of votes that, for now, do not include any Brexit-related issues.

michael.birnbaum@washpost.com

william.booth@washpost.com

Booth reported from London.

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