Prime Minister Theresa May is set to see her Brexit deal rejected in the biggest Parliamentary defeat for a British government in 95 years after her last minute pleas for support appeared to fall on deaf ears. The battle now is over not whether May loses, but how badly.
At least 70 of her Conservative Party, as well as some allies in the Democratic Unionist Party, are publicly pledged to join opposition Members of Parliament in voting against her agreement on Tuesday. That would translate into a defeat by a margin of 150 or more, the largest in over a century. Even if some abstain, a defeat by more than 100 would be the worst since 1924.
May postponed a vote before Christmas in the hope of winning over Parliament with new concessions from Brussels over the so-called backstop intended to ensure the post-Brexit Irish border stays open, but EU leaders’ letters of reassurance were treated with scorn in the House of Commons Monday.
“I will be continuing to encourage members of this House to vote for what I believe to be a good deal,” May said as she faced down criticism from all sides Monday afternoon. “We asked the people what their view was and said we would do what they decided, and we should now do it.”
Markets and the EU will be watching Tuesday’s results, scheduled to start at 7 PM, and the margin of a government defeat will affect how they both respond. A defeat by more than 220 votes could see sterling fall to $1.225, according to Neil Jones, head of hedge-fund currency sales at Mizuho Bank.
Meanwhile, a margin of less than 60 would leave some room for hope, several EU officials said last week, and the bloc may look at fresh ways of making the agreement more palatable to get it across the line.
As May appealed to her party in a closed-door meeting on Monday night in Parliament, it looked like even getting the margin of defeat below 100 votes would be a significant achievement.
Instead, the Prime Minister’s opponents, both those who want a harder Brexit, and those who want a softer Brexit -- or none at all -- were eager for the next phase of the battle. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson welcomed the imminent demise of the deal and said he would support a no-deal divorce “with zeal and enthusiasm” once it has failed.
“We can flunk it, we can vote for this deal, and we would thereby confirm the worst suspicions of the British public about the cynicism of the elite, or we can get it right and seize the opportunities before us,” he told lawmakers on Monday night. “If and when this deal is voted down let us not continue to flog this dead horse.”