© Reuters. A pro-EU supporter holds flags outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster London© Reuters. A pro-EU supporter holds flags outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster London

By Kate Holton and Gabriela Baczynska

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Britain’s weakened Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Brussels on Thursday to lobby European leaders for help after she survived a parliamentary mutiny that highlighted the deadlock over Brexit.

May won the backing of 200 Conservative Party members of parliament versus 117 against, in a secret ballot that deepened divisions just weeks before parliament needs to approve a deal to prevent a disorderly exit from the European Union.

In Britain’s biggest decision for decades, Brexit has split the nation and will shape the future of its $2.8 trillion economy including London’s status as a global financial hub.

Pro-Europeans fear exit will weaken the West, already struggling to assimilate Russian and Chinese power as well as Donald Trump’s unpredictable U.S. presidency. Brexit supporters hail it as casting off a flailing German-led European project.

Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay said May, who has been shuttling round Europe for months and will attend an EU summit until Friday afternoon, would seek assurances Britain would not be tied to the European Union indefinitely post-Brexit, as her party critics fear.

The “direction of travel” was in Britain’s favor, he said.

“The prime minister, through the mandate she secured from the parliamentary party last night, now has the time to have those discussions with European colleagues,” he said, adding that the direction of travel was “positive”.

However, no vote on the Brexit package was included in a schedule of parliamentary business for the coming week before Christmas and European leaders look unlikely to offer immediate support. A draft EU statement said they were merely “ready to examine” whether further assurance can be given.

The six-point EU document said any assurances would not “change or contradict” the legally-binding withdrawal agreement struck last month after two years of negotiations.

Earlier this week, May pulled a parliamentary vote on her deal, designed to maintain close future ties with the bloc, after admitting it would be heavily defeated in the House of Commons. She has pledged a new vote before January 21 but faces a tall order to convince skeptical lawmakers.

With Britain due to leave the EU on March 29, prospects now include a potentially disorderly exit with no deal agreed, or even another referendum.


May, who met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Brussels and will shortly see EU summit chair Donald Tusk, wants legal assurances that the Irish “backstop” would not remain in place indefinitely. The backstop is an emergency fix to prevent extensive border checks on the island of Ireland and is the most contentious element of the deal.

“A significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I’ve listened to what they said,” May said in Downing Street late on Wednesday. “We now have to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people.”

May, a 62-year-old former Bank of England employee and daughter of a Church of England vicar, voted to remain in the EU at a 2016 referendum, but has pledged to implement Brexit in line with the people’s will after that narrow vote to leave.

The EU’s draft statement, seen by Reuters, reiterated that the bloc prefers a new deal to ever triggering the Irish backstop and that it would try to swiftly conclude such an accord even if the emergency border fix kicks in.

EU states were not in agreement on the text on Thursday morning however, and diplomats in Brussels expect it to change. They suggested the bloc may be readying more solid assurances for May in January.

Several EU diplomats said Britain was seeking to terminate the backstop after three years.

May, who said on Wednesday she would not be standing in the next election due for 2022, has to secure some improvement on her deal if she is to have any hope of parliamentary approval.

The confidence vote against her has highlighted historic divisions over Europe within the Conservative Party that contributed to the downfall of May’s three predecessors: David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.

National newspapers said “lame duck” May had been given a “stay of execution” after she “scraped through”.

The Northern Irish party that props up her government – and strongly opposes her withdrawal deal – said the fundamental arithmetic in parliament was unchanged despite the confidence vote victory, and the backstop must go.

Eurosceptics who see the proposed deal as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum went further.

“The prime minister must realize that, under all constitutional norms, she ought to go and see the queen urgently and resign,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of a hard Brexit faction, after the confidence vote result.

Dominic Raab, who resigned as her Brexit minister after the deal, said he could not see how May could go on as leader.

Loyalists, however, said the party needed to get behind May and offer some certainty to businesses over future ties with the world’s biggest trading bloc.

“They never, ever stop,” Alistair Burt, a junior Foreign Office minister, said of Rees-Mogg’s group. “After the apocalypse, all that will be left will be ants and Tory (Conservative) MPs complaining about Europe and their leader.”