LONDON (AP) — On the day that Britain was originally scheduled to leave the European Union, lawmakers will vote Friday on what Prime Minister Theresa May’s government described as the “last chance to vote for Brexit.”
The House of Commons was voting on May’s twice-rejected European Union withdrawal agreement amid continuing opposition from hard-line Brexit supporters and Northern Ireland lawmakers.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox urged divided legislators to support the deal and finally break an impasse that has left Britons uncertain when, and even if, the country will leave the EU. If the deal is rejected, Britain will crash out of the bloc in two weeks unless the EU agrees to extend the deadline.
Cox said Parliament should take “a single decisive step ... to afford certainty to the millions of people who are waiting for it.”
The agreement still faces substantial opposition even after May sacrificed her job for her deal, promising to quit if lawmakers approved the deal and let Britain leave the EU in May.
Some previously resistant Brexit-backers have moved to support the deal. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — a likely contender to replace May as Conservative Party leader — tweeted that rejecting it risked “being forced to accept an even worse version of Brexit or losing Brexit altogether.”
But there is little hope of approval unless May can secure the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, which has refused to back the agreement because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K. The small party has 10 seats in the House of Commons and some Brexit backers say they will take their cue from the DUP.
Parliament is voting Friday on the 585-page withdrawal agreement that sets out the terms of Britain’s departure — including its financial settlement with the EU and the rights of EU and U.K. citizens — but not a shorter declaration on future ties that is also part of the divorce deal agreed between the U.K. and the EU late last year.
Its removal altered the deal enough to overcome a ban against asking lawmakers the same question over and over again.
May also hoped severing the link between the two parts of the deal would blunt opposition — though there was little sign of that.
Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said removing the political declaration from the vote made Brexit “blind, because you don’t know where you are going, now the prime minister has said she is stepping down.”
“So, the political declaration, the future relationship, is going now to be determined in a Tory leadership exercise,” he said.
Two years ago, Britain triggered a two-year countdown to Brexit, with the departure date set for March 29, 2019.
But with British politicians deadlocked over whether to approve a divorce deal, the EU last week granted an extension. Under its terms, if the withdrawal agreement is approved by 11 p.m. U.K. time (2300GMT, 7 p.m. EDT), Britain will leave the 28-nation bloc on May 22.
If it is rejected, Britain has until April 12 to announce a new plan, or leave the EU without a deal, risking severe disruption for people and businesses.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said Friday was “the last chance we have to vote for Brexit as we understood it.”
Almost three years after Britain voted in June 2016 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 surprised observers around the world who had viewed Britain’s 1,000-year-old parliamentary system as a model of stability.
It has also left Britons on both sides frustrated and angry. Some Brexit supporters, who had planned to be celebrating Friday, were protesting instead.
Retired charity worker Mandy Childs, one of a band of hard-core Brexit supporters walking across England to London under the slogan “Leave Means Leave,” said she felt “heartbroken.”
“We were told over a hundred times by a British prime minister that we would be leaving on the 29th of March, 2019,” she said.
“Now to do that, promise the British people that and then say ‘actually, no, we need to just put it back’ — absolute betrayal. And how dare she?”
Jeff Schaeffer in Great Missenden, England contributed to this story.