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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

British government survives EU customs union vote

Pro-EU Conservative MPs attempted to change Theresa May's post-Brexit trade strategy

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May walks to deliver a speech as she opens the Farnborough Airshow, south west of London, on July 16, 2018. Getty
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May walks to deliver a speech as she opens the Farnborough Airshow, south west of London, on July 16, 2018. Getty

British Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly avoided a defeat in parliament at the hands of pro-EU lawmakers from her own party on Tuesday, fending off a rebellion that threatened to worsen a crisis over her Brexit strategy.

Parliament voted 307 to 301 against an amendment to trade legislation that would have required the government to try to negotiate a customs union arrangement with the EU if, by Jan. 21, 2019, it had failed to negotiate a deal with the bloc that offered frictionless free trade for goods.

The narrow victory is Ms May's third this week, underlining the difficulty she faces in passing legislation on one of the most divisive and important decisions in modern British history with only a minority government and a party at war with itself.

She is seeking to unite her party behind a plan to leave the European Union.

Defeat would have plunged Ms May's leadership and the future of Brexit itself into doubt, and could have triggered resignations from her government or even a move to topple her premiership.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair called for a fresh vote on Britain's membership of the EU.

Mr Blair, who held the office for 10 years, said in an interview with AFP that he sympathises with Prime Minister Theresa May as she has "the least enviable job in Western politics".

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Theresa May survives knife-edge vote but Tory splits widen

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But the former Labour leader warned that with the scheduled date for Brexit approaching in March next year, it is time for her to admit "there's no way out" and call another referendum – with the option of staying in the EU.

"Once this thing has been started by a referendum it can frankly only be finished by a fresh vote," he said.

He reiterated that he is "passionately opposed to Brexit and I still believe it can be changed".

The former British leader noted the inherent dilemma in Brexit – stay close to the EU to protect trade but forfeit the opportunities of going it alone, or cut ties altogether and risk damage to the economy.

With parliament "paralysed" on the way forward, "the only way in the end this is going to be resolved is putting it back to the people", he said.

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