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UK Parliament, PM May's govt face off in Brexit showdown

By JILL LAWLESS | Associated Press | Published: December 5, 2018

LONDON — Britain's House of Commons on Wednesday opened Round Two in the bruising battle between lawmakers and Prime Minister Theresa May's government over her Brexit deal.

The Conservative government is struggling to convince skeptical legislators that the divorce deal it has struck with the European Union is a good one ahead of a vote in Parliament next week that could sink the agreement and possibly cost May her position.

Opening the second of five days of debate, Home Secretary Sajid Javid told legislators they should back the agreement in a Dec. 11 vote to safeguard Britain's vital security relationship with the EU.

"No one can pretend that this deal is perfect in every sense," Javid acknowledged. But he said the alternative was "an uncooperative no-deal" Brexit that would shut Britain out of EU security tools and EU data-sharing organizations.

"It is my belief that the deal on the table is the best option available in ensuring a smooth exit from the European Union," Javid said.

May is struggling to keep the Brexit deal on track after her Conservative government was dealt a double blow by Parliament.

In a historic first, legislators on Tuesday found the government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish legal advice it received from the country's top law officer about the Brexit agreement.

The government had argued that such advice is customarily kept secret. But it bowed to defeat Wednesday and released the reasoning from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.

The main thrust of Cox's advice was already known — the government released a 43-page document about it Monday in a bid to fend off the contempt motion. But the defeat demonstrated the fragility of May's government, which does not have a majority in Parliament.

The legal advice also provided fuel to opponents of May's deal, who dislike a "backstop" provision in the Brexit agreement that would keep Britain in a customs union with the EU to guarantee an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland.

The backstop is intended as a temporary measure, but pro-Brexit lawmakers say it could leave Britain tied to the EU indefinitely and unable to strike new trade deals around the world.

The legal advice confirmed that Britain can't unilaterally opt out of the backstop, which requires an agreement by both sides. Cox advised there was a risk the U.K. might become stuck in "protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations."

The border backstop is strongly opposed by Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May's minority government. The Protestant, pro-British DUP says the deal weakens the bonds of the United Kingdom by treating Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the country for customs purposes.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the backstop "is totally unacceptable to unionists throughout the United Kingdom and it must be defeated."

May's deal is in trouble because politicians on both sides of Britain's EU membership debate oppose it. Pro-Brexit lawmakers say it keeps Britain bound closely to the EU, while pro-EU politicians say it erects barriers between the U.K. and its biggest trading partner.

A defeat in the Dec. 11 vote would leave the U.K. facing a messy, economically damaging "no-deal" Brexit on March 29 and could topple the prime minister, her government, or both.

In another blow to May, two dozen Conservative lawmakers voted with the opposition Tuesday to force an amendment to Brexit plans giving lawmakers more say over what happens next if the Brexit deal is defeated by British lawmakers.

Pro-EU legislators say the amendment makes the prospect of a "no-deal" Brexit less likely, because Parliament can direct the government to take that option off the table.

Brexit-supporting legislators worry that opponents of Brexit in Parliament may try to water down the terms of departure from the EU, or even reverse the decision to leave.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said Wednesday there was "a real danger that the House of Commons, which has a natural 'remain' majority, may attempt to steal Brexit from the British people."

Fox said that would be "a democratic affront" to the 52 percent of British voters who opted in a 2016 referendum to leave the bloc.

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