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Theresa May stares into Brexit abyss as domestic opposition mounts

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Mrs May's compromise plan is facing opposition from Brexiteers, pro-Europeans, the Northern Irish party that props up her government, and even some of her own ministers.

London

PRIME Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy came under attack from all sides on Monday, increasing the risk that her plan for leaving the EU will be voted down by parliament and thrust the United Kingdom towards a potentially chaotic "no-deal" Brexit.

Less than five months before Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29, negotiators are still haggling over a backup plan for the land border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, if they fail to clinch a deal.

Mrs May's compromise plan, which seeks to maintain close trade ties with the EU in future, is facing opposition from Brexiteers, pro-Europeans, the Northern Irish party that props up her government, and even some of her own ministers.

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"I think it's the worst of all worlds," former education minister Justine Greening told BBC radio, saying she did not think there was any chance it could get through parliament.

"It leaves us with less influence, less controls over the rules we have to follow," added Ms Greening, who supported staying in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Sterling tumbled to a 1-1/2 week low of US$1.2838 in morning trade. Traders cited a report by the Independent newspaper that Mrs May had been forced to cancel an emergency Cabinet meeting to approve a draft deal, though a government source said no Cabinet meeting had ever been scheduled for Monday.

Britain's Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a prominent Brexit supporter, defended Mrs May's efforts to forge a compromise, telling BBC TV: "The prime minister is trying to get the very, very best deal for Britain." Economists polled by Reuters last week said there remains a one-in-four chance that London and Brussels will fail to reach a deal on the terms of departure. In Brussels on Monday, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator told ministers from the other 27 EU member states that he was waiting for a signal that Mrs May has mustered enough votes to get a deal approved by parliament.

Should that signal not come by the end of Wednesday, EU sources said a special EU summit to rubber-stamp the Brexit deal would not happen in November. Brexit watchers in Brussels now look to the weekend of Nov 24-25 for a potential summit, should a breakthrough come. "It's such a mess politically in Britain, it's hard to see at this stage how she can win support for the package," said one diplomat.

Both sides need an agreement to keep trade flowing between the world's biggest trading bloc and the fifth largest national economy. The other 27 members of the EU combined have about five times the economic might of Britain.

But Mrs May has struggled to untangle nearly 46 years of membership without damaging trade or upsetting the lawmakers who will ultimately decide the fate of any deal she can secure. While Mrs May has for months faced fierce opposition from Brexit-supporting lawmakers, who say she has betrayed the referendum result by seeking such close ties with the EU, she is now facing increasing pressure from pro-Europeans too.

If a deal is voted down by parliament, the United Kingdom will face an uncertain future: leaving abruptly without a deal, the collapse of Mrs May's government, an election, or, as some opponents of Brexit hope, a new referendum.

The EU is not currently working to include any second referendum in its Brexit planning, sources in Brussels said. Brexiteers say leaving without a deal might be damaging in the short term but that in the longer term it would be better than signing up to obey rules from the EU for decades to come. REUTERS