LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May was making a final push Thursday to save her European Union withdrawal deal after her promise to step down gained the agreement some support but failed to win over lawmakers from Northern Ireland.
May pledged Wednesday night that she would quit if the deal were 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 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.
The prime minister’s announcement came as lawmakers rejected eight alternatives to her deal after an unprecedented move to wrest control of the parliamentary agenda from the government in an attempt to find a plan that could break the Brexit deadlock.
A second round of votes is planned on Monday to try to find a plan with majority backing. But 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?”
The EU last week extended the Brexit deadline for two weeks, saying Britain would leave the bloc with no deal on April 12 if it doesn’t come up with a plan to break the deadlock by that date. If Parliament approves May’s deal by Friday, the deadline will be extended until May 22 so there is time to pass implementing legislation.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the outcome of the indicative votes showed “there are no easy options here,” as he urged lawmakers to support May’s deal.
The results of Wednesday’s “indicative votes” underscored the divisions in Parliament, and the country, over Brexit — but also pointed toward a potential compromise.
The idea of remaining in a customs union with the EU came closest to winning a majority, with 264 lawmakers voting for it and 272 voting against. The most popular option was the idea of holding a second referendum on any deal approved by Parliament, which was backed by 268 lawmakers, but opposed by 295.
Both ideas got more support than the 242 votes secured by May’s deal earlier this month.
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 it with the EU.
May has said she will consider the outcome of the votes, although she has refused to be bound by the result.
Business groups expressed alarm at the continuing gridlock, 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, who sponsored the second referendum proposal, said lawmakers who had been “wedded to particular proposals” now needed to compromise in the national interest.
“They are going to have to look over the abyss,” she said.