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Back the Brexit deal or face long delay, May's deputy warns MPs

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Prime Minister Theresa May's deputy warned lawmakers on Friday that unless they approved her Brexit divorce deal after two crushing defeats, Britain's exit from the European Union could face a long delay.

London

PRIME Minister Theresa May's deputy warned lawmakers on Friday that unless they approved her Brexit divorce deal after two crushing defeats, Britain's exit from the European Union could face a long delay.

The United Kingdom's divorce from the EU has sown chaos throughout Mrs May's premiership and the Brexit finale is still uncertain. Options include a long delay, exiting with Mrs May's deal, leaving without a deal or even another referendum.

The British parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to seek a delay to the March 29 exit date enshrined in law.

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Mrs May says she wants to minimise any delay to just three months, but to achieve that she will need parliament to back her deal at the third time of asking early next week.

In essence, Mrs May has handed Brexit supporters an ultimatum - ratify her deal by March 20 or face a delay to Brexit way beyond June 30 that would open up the possibility that the entire divorce could be ultimately thwarted.

Mrs May's de-facto deputy, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, said he hoped the UK would leave in an orderly fashion but if Mrs May's deal was not approved then a long extension was on the cards.

"You don't just have a short, technical extension to our membership of the European Union, you almost certainly need a significantly longer one to find a time for parliament to come to a majority verdict," he told BBC radio.

"I hope that MPs (lawmakers) of all parties will be over this weekend reflecting on the way forward," Mr Lidington said, adding that the legal default was that the UK would leave on March 29, unless something else is agreed upon.

EU leaders will consider pressing Britain to delay Brexit by at least a year to find a way out of the domestic maelstrom, though there is shock and growing impatience at the political chaos in London.

Supporters of Brexit say that while it may bring some short-term instability, in the longer term Britain will thrive if it moves away from what they cast as a doomed experiment in EU integration that is falling behind global powers such as the US and China.

Mrs May's deal, an attempt to keep close relations with the EU while leaving the bloc's formal structures, was defeated by 230 votes in parliament on Jan 15 and by 149 votes on March 12.

An often chaotic set of votes in parliament this week has shown that none of the alternatives - such as leaving with no deal, a referendum or allowing parliament to decide how to leave - can muster a majority among lawmakers yet.

Now Mrs May wants a third go.

"She's been working tirelessly to deliver a deal and she will continue to do that," her spokesman said.

But she must win over dozens of Brexit-supporting rebels in her own Conservative Party and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up her minority government.

A senior government source said that persuading the DUP would be key to securing parliament's approval, as that would prompt eurosceptic Conservatives to back the deal.

Rebels have accused Mrs May of botching the negotiations with Brussels and surrendering on the backstop - an insurance policy which sets out what happens to the Irish border if the sides fail to find another solution.

Many Brexiteers fear the backstop, aimed at avoiding controls on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, will trap the United Kingdom in the EU's orbit indefinitely.

But Irish Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has assured Britain the EU has no wish to "trap" the UK in the so-called backstop as he urged lawmakers in London to back Mrs May's plan for exiting the bloc.

The measure could tie Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to EU rules indefinitely, according to many British lawmakers.

The backstop is "an insurance policy that would only be used if we are unable to agree a sufficiently ambitious future relationship between the EU and the UK that would remove any need for it," Mr Donohoe said in a speech at Bloomberg's European headquarters in London on Friday.

"If it is triggered, it would be temporary, until a better solution is found. We have no desire to trap the UK indefinitely in the backstop," he said. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG