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UK's May offers to quit once her Brexit deal is delivered

Peter Nicholls, REUTERS | British Prime Minister Theresa May pictured outside Downing Street in London on March 27, 2019.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday she would quit if her twice-defeated EU divorce deal passes at the third attempt, making a last-ditch bid to persuade rebels in her Conservative party to back her.

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May told a meeting of Conservative lawmakers she would stand down if her divorce plan finally got through a bitterly-divided parliament, to ensure a smooth path for a new leader to begin the next step of negotiating the future relationship with the European Union.

"I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party," May said. "I know there is a desire for a new approach and new leadership in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations and I won't stand in the way of that."

May's announcement marks the latest dramatic turn in the United Kingdom's three-year Brexit crisis, but it is still remains uncertain how, when or even if it will leave the European Union.

Within hours of the prime minister's announcement, her chances of winning over parliament took a hit when the Northern Irish party that props up her minority government reiterated its opposition to her deal.

"We will not be supporting the government if they table a fresh meaningful vote," the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said in a statement. Deputy party leader Nigel Dodds later made clear in a tweet that this meant they would be voting against, rather than abstaining.

Brexit chaos: How did Britain get here?

May had already promised to step down before the next election, due in 2022. By agreeing to go sooner, she hoped to increase the chances of her deal passing before the new Brexit deadline of April 12.

Many rebels in her Conservative party, who want a cleaner break from the EU than May's deal would deliver, had made it clear that they would only consider supporting her agreement if she gave a firm commitment and date for her resignation.

"I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party," May told the party meeting, according to extracts released by her office.

"I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit."

The government is now expected to bring the deal back to parliament for a third vote on Friday, though speaker John Bercow repeated his warning that he would not allow a third vote unless the motion had changed substantially since its last defeat.

May needs 75 MPs to flip

May's withdrawal agreement means Britain will leave the EU single market and customs union as well as EU political bodies.

But it requires some EU rules to apply unless ways can be found in the future to ensure no border is rebuilt between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Many Conservative rebels and the DUP have objected to this so-called "Irish backstop", saying it risks binding Britain to the EU for years.

But given the choice between the backstop and the risk of there being no Brexit at all, several Conservative opponents of the deal have since rallied behind the prime minister.

>> Read more: Of Backstops, Brextremists and BOBs – A glossary of Brexit terms

Shortly after May's meeting with Conservative MPs, the Times said sources within the party suggested around 40 lawmakers had switched to supporting her deal but around 40 were still undecided.

Former foreign minister Boris Johnson, a prominent eurosceptic and potential leadership candidate, was among those to have swung round behind May's deal, the Times reported.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who heads the ERG group of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, also said he would now reluctantly vote for May's agreement if the DUP backed it or abstained.

But a spokesman said after a meeting of the group that "there is no way enough votes are coming out of that room to put the (Withdrawal Agreement) through".

May's withdrawal agreement was defeated in parliament by 149 votes on March 12 and by 230 votes on Jan. 15.

To get it approved, she needs 75 lawmakers to come over dozens of Conservative rebels, some opposition Labour Party lawmakers and the DUP.

While May was telling her lawmakers of her intention to quit in a parliament committee room, MPs in the main chamber debated eight Brexit options ranging from leaving abruptly with no deal to revoking the divorce papers or holding a new referendum.

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Several options on the table would see much closer alignments with the EU than May has been willing to consider, including staying in the common market or a customs union. They were due to vote at 1900 GMT on a ballot paper for as many proposals as they wish.

The United Kingdom was originally due to leave the EU on March 29 but last week the EU granted an extension to the divorce date until April 12.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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