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LONDON (Reuters) - Cracks appeared in the ranks of rebel Conservative lawmakers opposed to Prime Minister Theresa’s May’s Brexit plans on Monday but she had yet to win over enough hardliners to get her EU departure deal through parliament.

FILE PHOTO: Brexit supporting Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is interviewed by a television channel in a temporary studio opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/File Photo

One of the most influential Brexit-backing lawmakers in May’s party, Jacob Rees-Mogg, gave the strongest hint to date that rebels might back her, saying that a bad exit deal was better than staying in the European Union.

May has warned lawmakers that unless they approve her Brexit divorce pact after two crushing defeats, Britain’s exit from the EU could face a long delay which many Brexiteers fear would mean Britain may never leave. A vote could come this week.

After two-and-a-half years of negotiations with the EU, the final outcome remains uncertain - with options including a long delay, exiting with May’s deal, a disorderly exit without a deal or even another EU membership referendum.

May is scrambling to rally support ahead of a summit of EU heads of government on Thursday and Friday where she has warned she will ask for a long Brexit delay unless parliament ratifies the deal she struck in November.

Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group of euroskeptics in Britain’s House of Commons, said he had not yet made up his mind how to vote on May’s deal but any Brexit was better than staying in the bloc.

“No deal is better than a bad deal but a bad deal is better than remaining in the European Union in the hierarchy of deals,” Rees-Mogg told LBC radio. “A two-year extension is basically remaining in the European Union.”

Rees-Mogg said his dream option would be a no-deal exit on March 29, the official departure date, but that he felt May - a former supporter of EU membership who won the premiership in the turmoil following the 2016 Brexit referendum - would seek to prevent a no-deal.

“The question people like me will ultimately have to answer is: can we get to no-deal instead? If we can get to no-deal instead, that is a better option... but I am concerned the prime minister is determined to stop a no-deal.”May’s deal has in the past few days been publicly backed by several prominent pro-Brexit Conservative politicians and campaigners, but other senior Brexiteers say they are holding out against the prime minister.

May’s blueprint, an attempt to retain close trading and security ties with the EU while leaving the bloc’s formal political structures, was defeated by 230 votes in parliament on Jan. 15, and by 149 votes on March 12.

If she could get the deal approved after the biggest parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British history, it would mark a spectacular and surprising turnaround and by far the biggest achievement of her crisis-riven tenure.

To do so, May must win over at least 75 MPs - dozens of rebels in her own Conservative Party, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government, and some opposition Labour MPs.

Despite Rees-Mogg’s comments, there remains a hard core of pro-Brexit Conservatives who are not yet ready to swing behind May and who hope that Britain will leave the EU on March 29 without her deal, which they see as not offering a clean break.

The biggest issue for the Brexiteers and the DUP is the so-called Northern Irish border backstop, an insurance policy aimed at avoiding post-Brexit controls on the United Kingdom’s border with EU-member Ireland.

Many Brexiteers and the DUP are concerned the backstop will trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit indefinitely, and have sought guarantees it will not.

For their part, almost all opposition lawmakers and some pro-EU Conservatives see the deal as leaving Britain worse off by keeping it with one foot in and one foot out of the EU, subject to various bloc rules without a say in making them.

THIRD TIME LUCKY?

May’s finance minister, Philip Hammond, held talks with the DUP on Friday but said the government did not yet have support it needed and would only put the deal to a third vote if it felt it could win.

“There are some cautious signs of encouragement ... but there is a lot more work to do,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC on Monday.

Talks with the DUP were continuing, Downing Street said. Party leader Arlene Foster was not planning to travel to London, the DUP said, amid media reports that no breakthrough between the party and May’s government was expected on Monday.

Stepping up the pressure on the prime minister, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said he could trigger another confidence vote in May’s government if she fails again to get her deal adopted by parliament.

Former British foreign minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday it was not too late for the government to get “real change” to May’s deal and cautioned against holding another parliamentary vote on the agreement this week.

Johnson, a prominent Brexit campaigner who might influence other lawmakers on which way to vote over May’s deal, said in his column in the Telegraph newspaper that this week’s EU summit offered a chance “to get real change to the backstop”.

EU leaders have repeatedly ruled out renegotiating the deal.

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood and Mark Heinrich

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