LONDON—British Prime Minister Theresa May looked set Monday to postpone Parliament’s vote on her European Union divorce deal to avoid a shattering defeat, throwing Brexit plans into chaos just weeks after Britain and the bloc finally reached an agreement on the U.K.’s departure.
The pound sank amid the political uncertainty, hitting an 18-month low against the U.S. dollar of $1.2660.
The House of Commons Speaker’s office said May would make a previously unscheduled statement to lawmakers about Brexit at about 3:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. EST). An updated House of Commons schedule said there would also be a statement on “business of the House” after May’s address, indicating a sudden change to the parliamentary timetable.
May’s office insisted Monday morning that the vote would definitely be held. But British media reported that May had decided to postpone the vote.
All signs had pointed to a big defeat for the prime minister on Tuesday—a result that could sink May’s deal, her leadership, or both.
Postponing the vote would be a new blow for May, who became prime minister after Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU. She has been battling ever since—first to strike a divorce deal with the bloc, then to sell it to skeptical British lawmakers before the U.K. leaves the bloc on March 29.
May’s Conservative government does not have a majority in the House of Commons, and opposition parties—as well as dozens of Conservative lawmakers—said they would not back the divorce deal that May and EU leaders agreed on last month.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers say the deal keeps Britain bound too closely to the EU, while pro-EU politicians say it erects barriers between the U.K. and its biggest trading partner and leaves many details of the future relationship undecided.
The main sticking point is a “backstop” provision that aims to guarantee an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland after Brexit. The measure would keep Britain under EU customs rules, and is supposed to last until superseded by permanent new trade arrangements.
Critics say it could leave Britain tied to the EU indefinitely, unable to strike new trade deals around the world.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers said they wouldn’t support May’s agreement unless she renegotiated it to remove the Irish backstop. Steve Baker, a leading Conservative Brexiteer, said Monday that May should “go back to Brussels and demand a better deal.”
EU leaders insist the Brexit withdrawal agreement can’t be changed.
“The deal is the deal,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Monday. “It’s taken two years to put together. It’s a fair deal for both sides.”
However, while the 585-page withdrawal agreement is set, an accompanying declaration on future relations between the EU and Britain is shorter and vaguer and may be open to amendment.
Postponing the vote could give May more time to seek concessions from the EU, which is due to hold a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. She spoke over the weekend to European Council President Donald Tusk and to European leaders including Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, amid signs she was seeking to tweak the deal.
“Of course we can improve this deal, and the prime minister is seeking to improve this deal,” British Environment Secretary Michael Gove told the BBC.
In the EU, though, there is exasperation at Britain’s indecision. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator, tweeted: “I can’t follow anymore. After two years of negotiations, the Tory government wants to delay the vote. Just keep in mind that we will never let the Irish down. This delay will further aggravate the uncertainty for people & businesses. It’s time they make up their mind!”
The Brexit disarray leaves both May and her minority government on shaky ground. The main opposition Labour Party has said it may call for a no-confidence motion in the government, and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her Scottish National Party would support an attempt to topple the government and trigger an election.
“This shambles can’t go on – so how about it?” Sturgeon tweeted at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
In another twist in the Brexit tale, the EU’s top court ruled Monday that Britain can change its mind over Brexit, boosting the hopes of British people who want to stay in the EU that the process can be reversed.
The European Court of Justice ruled that when an EU member country has notified the bloc of its intent to leave, “that member state is free to revoke unilaterally that notification.”
Britain invoked Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty in March 2017, triggering a two-year exit process. But a group of Scottish legislators had asked the ECJ to rule on whether the U.K. could pull out of the withdrawal procedure on its own.
The Luxembourg-based ECJ said that, given the absence of any exit provision in Article 50, countries are able to change their mind in line with their own constitutional arrangements and that such a move “reflects a sovereign decision.”
It said the British government is free to do so as long as no withdrawal agreement has entered force.
May has repeatedly said the government will not seek to delay or reverse Brexit.
Gove, who helped drive the Brexit campaign, said the court ruling would have no real impact.
“We don’t want to stay in the EU … so this case is very well, but it doesn’t alter the referendum vote or the clear intention of the government to make sure that we leave on March 29,” Gove said.
—Lorne Cook reported from Brussels. Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story.