UK leader Theresa May makes final push on EU divorce deal

LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May made a final push Thursday to save her European Union withdrawal agreement after her promise to step down gained the deal some support but failed to win over lawmakers from Northern Ireland.

The government announced there would be a previously unscheduled Brexit debate in Parliament on Friday — but did not confirm whether it would include a new vote on May’s twice-rejected EU divorce agreement.

The EU has said the prime minister must secure approval for her deal by 11 p.m. U.K. time (2300GMT, 7 p.m. EDT) on Friday if the U.K. is to be given an automatic delay of its departure date from the bloc until May 22. Otherwise, Britain has until April 12 to announce a new plan, or leave the bloc without a deal.

Announcing Friday’s debate, House of Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom did not say whether it would include a vote on May’s deal.

Commons Speaker John Bercow has said the government can’t bring the rejected agreement back a third time unless it has been substantially changed. And it is still unclear whether the government can secure enough votes to pass it.

May pledged Wednesday night that she would resign if her Brexit deal was approved, in hopes of blunting opposition from lawmakers in her Conservative Party who have criticized her leadership. May has been under mounting pressure to quit from pro-Brexit Conservatives, who accuse her of negotiating a bad divorce deal that leaves Britain too closely tied to the bloc after it leaves.

Some prominent opponents, including former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, quickly said they would back the Brexit agreement, but Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party said it remained opposed because of concern that the deal treats the region differently from other parts of the U.K.

Almost three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, Brexit has brought the country’s political system to a standstill. The impasse has frustrated EU politicians trying to negotiate an exit agreement, and it has surprised observers around the world who had viewed Britain’s 1,000-year-old parliamentary system as a model of stability.

It has not always deserved that reputation. The British system works best when one party has a parliamentary majority and can pass legislation. Minority governments struggle and seldom last long. The current situation is almost unprecedented: Britain has a minority government and a lame-duck prime minister, with both main parties split down the middle over how and whether to leave the EU.

The gridlock has brought the country to the precipice of a chaotic departure from the EU.

The prime minister’s resignation announcement came as U.K. lawmakers rejected eight alternatives to her Brexit deal in an attempt to find a plan that could break the stalemate.

The results of Wednesday’s “indicative votes” underscored the divisions in Parliament and the country over Brexit. The idea of remaining in a customs union with the EU came closest to winning a majority, with 264 lawmakers for it and 272 against. The most popular option was the idea of holding a second referendum on any Brexit deal approved by Parliament, which was backed by 268 lawmakers, but opposed by 295.

“We counted eight no’s last night. Now we need a yes on the way forward,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Thursday.

The plan is for the most popular ideas to move to a second vote Monday to find an option that can command a majority. Parliament would then instruct the government to negotiate that plan with the EU.

May has refused to say she will be bound by the results.

The architect of the votes said the inconclusive outcome meant a damaging no-deal Brexit was becoming more likely.

“At the moment, we are heading for a situation where, under the law, we leave without a deal on the 12th, which many of us think is not a good solution,” Conservative Party lawmaker Oliver Letwin told the BBC. “And the question is, is Parliament on Monday willing to come to any view in the majority about that way forward that doesn’t involve that result?”

Business groups expressed alarm at the impasse, which has left companies uncertain whether they will face tariffs, customs checks and other barriers to trade with the EU in just a couple of weeks.

“No one would run a business like this — and it is no way to run a country,” said Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce.

He told politicians to stop “chasing rainbows” and “start making tough decisions, however personally or politically difficult they might be.”

Labour Party legislator Margaret Beckett said lawmakers who had been “wedded to particular proposals” now needed to compromise in Britain’s national interest.

“They are going to have to look over the abyss,” she said.

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