Brexiteers locked in high-stakes alliance with EU Remainers

Edouard GUIHAIRE
By rejecting May's deal Brexiteers such as MP Jacob Rees-Mogg could actually help Remainers (AFP Photo/HO)

London (AFP) - In opposing Prime Minister Theresa May's EU divorce deal even after MPs voted to delay Britain's departure, hardline Brexiteers are now locked in a high-stakes alliance with those out to stop the process entirely.

At least one faction will end up unhappy.

Remainers and Brexiteer Leavers alike declared victory on Tuesday when the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected May's EU withdrawal agreement for a second time.

But the defeat opened the door to Wednesday's vote, in which MPs voted against ever leaving without a deal -- to the delight of Remainers, though Leavers insisted no-deal remained the legal default.

That led to Thursday's vote, in which lawmakers authorised May to seek an extension to the departure day from March 29 to June 30 -- and possibly longer if MPs cannot agree on a deal.

May will bring her divorce deal before parliament for a third time next week -- possibly the last chance Brexiteers will have to stop Brexit being delayed.

Several commentators took that as an ultimatum: back the deal or risk losing Brexit altogether.

Meanwhile for hardcore Remainers, with a second referendum rejected by MPs, it is a chance to kill off leaving on March 29 with a deal that delivers some form of Brexit.

- 'Hold your nose' -

"The failure to pass Mrs May's deal means Brexiteers have now cleared the way for Remainers to do their worst," said Asa Bennett, a commentator in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

After keeping no-deal at bay, they now plan "to target Brexit itself".

Some Brexit supporters acknowledged the danger and urged their colleagues to drop their opposition to May's deal.

Conservative MP Ben Bradley urged them to "hold their noses, to get Brexit signed and sealed".

"Parliament will vote for extension, and extension leads to further delay, further confusion, and great risk of Brexit not happening at all," he wrote in The Guardian newspaper.

But his position drew anger on social media, where he was dismissed as a "traitor" and a sell-out, revealing how much Brexit still inflames passions.

- Towards a soft Brexit -

Neither side can really claim they are winning, noted Steve Peers, professor of law at the University of Essex.

"Those who can accept a soft Brexit compromise are more likely to benefit" from this week's votes, he told AFP, referring to a situation where Britain leaves but stays close to the EU.

All eyes are on the European Research Group of hardcore Brexiteers, the rebels in May's Conservative Party, plus the Conservatives' allies in Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, who are also Brexiteers opposing the deal.

The Sun newspaper said Brexit's only hope was now that the ERG and the DUP swing behind May's deal.

Otherwise, "do the Tory ERG group grasp now how bad this could get?"

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the door to a deal remained open.

"Nobody wants to leave without a deal and we want to make sure we get there," she told the BBC.

The "final part of a negotiation" is when it matters most she said, "when you start to see the whites in people's eyes".

Remainers too are building up to a mass march on March 23 to demand a second Brexit referendum, with celebrities like actors Patrick Stewart and Keira Knightley rallying to the cause.

But Thursday's vote in parliament against extending the Brexit process in order to hold another referendum dealt a major blow to their hopes.