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Brexit hardliners outplayed by May's Brexit move

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Hoping that Prime Minister Theresa May would embrace their dream of a no-deal Brexit, hardliners in her Conservative Party played hardball - and misjudged it.

[LONDON] Hoping that Prime Minister Theresa May would embrace their dream of a no-deal Brexit, hardliners in her Conservative Party played hardball - and misjudged it.

Mrs May has instead said she will seek a delay to Britain's April 12 departure and made overtures to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that could result in a softer Brexit.

The move risks splitting the Conservatives and MPs lined up to confront Mrs May in parliament on Wednesday.

"Does it remain the position of the prime minister that the leader of the opposition is not fit to govern?" asked former Brexit minister David Jones.

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He was one of a number of Conservative MPs who voted against Mrs May's divorce deal when it was defeated by the House of Commons for a third time last Friday.

Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said the move "makes my blood run cold", adding: "I fear for Brexit, it's never going to happen."

Many of those holding out against Mrs May's deal want to leave the EU with no agreement at all, and hoped the continued deadlock in parliament would bring this about.

But instead, after a marathon meeting with her cabinet on Tuesday, Mrs May went the other way, announcing a plan to delay Brexit for a second time to try to get a deal.

In a letter to her MPs Wednesday, she was clear where she believes the blame lies.

"With some colleagues unwilling to support the government... this is the only way to deliver the smooth, orderly Brexit that we promised and for which the British people voted," she wrote.

'KICKING THEMSELVES' 

"I wonder how many hard Brexiteers are kicking themselves this morning," Simon Hix of the London School of Economics said on Twitter.

"They had three chances to vote for a deal... but rejected it for fanatical reasons.

"And (they) are now likely to get either a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all."

Commentator Asa Bennett wrote in the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph: "They can't say they weren't warned that this could be the consequence of depriving her deal of the support it needed to get through the Commons."

Calls are now growing for Mrs May to be removed, but after a confidence vote failed in December, she is immune from another challenge until the end of the year.

PERFECT STORM

Many at Westminster believe a consensus between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn is unlikely, not just because of their different approaches but because Labour has long tried to distance itself from a "Tory Brexit".

If they cannot agree, the prime minister has suggested they ask the House of Commons to decide, raising speculation she could bring back her deal for a fourth vote.

Some Brexit-backing Conservatives say now is the time for colleagues to back her.

Others are still pressing for Mrs May to renegotiate her deal with the EU to amend the Irish border "backstop", even though her previous attempt to do this failed.

Whatever happens in the next few days, Mrs May's change of tack could precipitate a major crisis within the Conservative party.

"A perfect storm is now approaching the Conservative Party," said political analyst Matthew Goodwin.

"A majority of Conservative voters loathe Corbyn and back no deal."

With local elections looming next month, he noted that "not one but two hard Brexit parties - the Brexit Party & UKIP - are nipping at their heels".

Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, said there was a chance Mrs May's deal could scrape through if it returns to MPs for a fourth try.

But he warned: "Many of those who make up the party's pro-Brexit majority will view her as... ready to split her party to achieve a greater good."

AFP