Parliament will again try to take control of Britain’s departure from the European Union on Monday, with some lawmakers hoping to force Prime Minister Theresa May to drop her Brexit strategy and pursue close economic ties with the bloc.
May’s deal, which has been defeated by lawmakers three times even after she promised to step down if it passed, was further dented when her own parliamentary enforcer said a softer Brexit was inevitable after she lost her majority in a 2017 election.
Three days after the date on which Britain was originally due to leave the EU, it was still uncertain how, when or even if the United Kingdom would ever say goodbye to the bloc it first joined 46 years ago.
The third defeat of May’s divorce deal left one of the weakest leaders in a generation facing a spiralling crisis over Brexit, the United Kingdom’s most significant move since World War Two.
Underlining how uncertainty is hurting business, the UK head of German industrial giant Siemens, Juergen Maier, said Britain was wrecking its reputation for stability and he urged lawmakers to back a customs union with the EU.
Parliament will vote on different Brexit options on Monday, possibly showing a majority backing for a customs union, and then May could try one last roll of the dice by bringing her deal back to a vote in parliament as soon as Wednesday.
May’s government and her party, which has grappled with a schism over Europe for 30 years, was in open conflict between those pushing for a customs union with the EU and eurosceptics who are demanding a cleaner break with the bloc.
May’s chief whip, responsible for party discipline, said the government should have been clearer that May’s loss of her majority in parliament in a snap 2017 election would “inevitably” lead it to accept a softer Brexit.
“The government as a whole probably should have just been clearer on the consequences of that,” Julian Smith told the BBC in an interview published on Monday.
“The parliamentary arithmetic would mean that this would be inevitably a kind of softer type of Brexit,” said Smith, who also said ministers had tried to undermine the prime minister.
Their behaviour, he said, was the “worst example of ill-discipline in a cabinet in British political history”.
Asked about his comments, May’s spokesman said: “The PM made it clear that there was a need to bring the country back together after the Brexit vote and that is what they (the government) are working to achieve.”
On the lack of discipline in government, he said Brexit had brought “out strong emotions” on all sides of the debate.
For EU officials watching from Brussels, there was one plea – please make up your minds.
“A sphinx is an open book compared to the UK,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president. “Nobody knows where it is heading. Would like to make the sphinx talk and tell us in which direction they would like to go.”
In a 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 51.9 per cent, backed leaving the EU while 16.1 million, or 48.1 per cent, backed staying. But ever since, opponents of Brexit have sought to soften, or even stop, the divorce.
Parliament is due to vote at about 1900 GMT on Monday on a range of alternative Brexit options selected by Speaker John Bercow from nine proposals put forward by lawmakers, including a no-deal exit, preventing a no-deal exit, a customs union, or a second referendum.
The Times newspaper said May had been warned by some senior ministers that she faced resignations if she agreed to pursue a softer Brexit and now several lawmakers say they can only see a general election as offering a pathway to a solution – something May, so far, has ruled out.
Eurosceptic lawmakers Steve Baker, a member of her Conservative Party, suggested that any backing for a customs union could push him to support a move to topple the government.
Asked if, were May to pursue a customs union with the EU, he would vote against her government in a confidence motion, Baker told the BBC: “I’m hoping not to reach that point.”
Britain had been due to leave the EU on March 29 but the political deadlock in London forced May to ask the bloc for a delay. Currently, Brexit is due to take place at 2200 GMT on April 12 unless May comes up with another option.
The Brexit crisis has left the United Kingdom divided: supporters of both Brexit and EU membership marched through London last week. Many on both sides feel betrayed by a political elite that has failed to show leadership.
Business is also increasingly frustrated. “Enough is enough. We are all running out of patience. Make a decision and unite around a customs union compromise that delivers economic security and stability,” Siemens’ Maier said.
“Where the UK used to be the beacon for stability, we are now becoming a laughing stock,” he said in open letter to lawmakers published by website Politico.