With May’s monumental defeat, no end in sight for Brexit

Why We Wrote This

The vote on Theresa May’s Brexit plan was perhaps the most important in Britain’s modern era. Parliament’s sweeping rejection almost assures that Brexit will require an extension beyond its March 29 deadline.

Frank Augstein/AP
‘Leavers’ and pro-Europe demonstrators protested opposite the Houses of Parliament in London Jan. 15 ahead of Tuesday’s vote on the agreement.

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Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to reject Prime Minister Theresa May’s terms of departure from the European Union, bringing new uncertainty to a process that is meant to be coming to an end in just over 70 days. Ms. May had defended the agreement as the best on offer to undo more than four decades of economic and political integration with the rest of Europe. But two years of corrosive arguments over how to put into effect Britain’s 2016 referendum and fitful negotiations with the EU have left Parliament rigidly divided over Brexit. That has cast a long shadow over British politics and called into question the effectiveness of a parliamentary democracy that has long been admired for its pragmatism. For pro-Brexit voters who simply want politicians to finish the job, Tuesday’s vote is likely to disappoint. “What we’re seeing from British public is Brexit fatigue. They just want the government to get on with it,” says Alex de Ruyter, director of the Center for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University. Whatever happens next, the deadline for Britain’s departure – March 29 at midnight – is now almost certain to be extended or even shelved as MPs seek to corral May into exploring alternatives to her deal, including a possible second referendum.

The result of Tuesday’s vote in Parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May’s terms of departure from the European Union was ultimately not a surprise. Her minority government is deeply divided over Brexit and Ms. May’s own leadership.

But the scale of defeat that her plan suffered in Parliament – an emphatic 432 against to 202 for – has brought new uncertainty to a process meant to be coming to an end in just over 70 days’ time.

It has even thrown the survival of May’s government into question; The opposition Labour Party immediately filed a no-confidence motion that will be voted on Wednesday. Whatever happens next, the deadline for Britain’s departure – March 29 at midnight – is now certain to be extended or even shelved as members of Parliament seek to corral May into exploring alternatives to her deal, including a possible second referendum.

For now, Britain’s own statutes dictate an exit on March 29, with or without a formal agreement. To avoid a chaotic no-deal Brexit, Parliament will need to pass new legislation and to request an extension from the 27 other EU members that gives breathing space for British lawmakers.

“I think what we will see is an emphatic rejection of no-deal, and Parliament will then try to ensure that there is further time to work out whether an alternative deal is more acceptable,” says Robert Hazell, professor of government and the constitution at King’s College London.

Even before Tuesday’s defeat, the largest in living memory, the timetable for an orderly Brexit was tight. To implement the agreement, a slew of domestic legislation has to pass both houses of Parliament before being signed into law. EU leaders have already signaled that a modest delay would be allowed if Parliament had agreed on the terms of departure and needed to tie up loose ends. But extending by more than a few months would be a bigger ask.

Over the past week, backbench MPs have worked across the aisle to pass amendments that tied May’s hands in the event of her deal being rejected. Some have called for Parliament to hold votes on what direction it wants to take on Brexit, with or without government assent.

But finding a consensus on that direction is fraught, not least because public opinion is also split, says John Curtice, a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde. Both May and her opposition counterpart, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, preside over splintered parties in which a pragmatic center is hard to locate. “It’s perfectly clear that we’re not leaving on the 29th of March. But it’s very difficult to resolve. The country is very polarized,” he says.

For pro-Brexit voters who simply want politicians to finish the job, Tuesday’s vote is likely to disappoint. “What we’re seeing from British public is Brexit fatigue. They just want the government to get on with it,” says Alex de Ruyter, director of the Center for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University.

A spokesman for May said that she expected to survive Wednesday’s no-confidence vote and would move to consult senior MPs on all sides about Parliament’s views on Brexit. Under an amendment passed last week, a move that angered pro-Brexit MPs, May has to report back to Parliament by Monday on her next move.

Asked if she would resign after such a humiliating defeat, the spokesman told reporters: “She wants to deliver Brexit in the way that the people voted for.”

Before Tuesday’s vote, many had expected May to seek further concessions from European leaders that could make her agreement more acceptable to wavering MPs. In her final appeal to lawmakers before the vote, she insisted that the withdrawal agreement – the legally binding treaty put to Parliament – would remain part of any orderly Brexit. Talk of going back to Brussels to draw up a new agreement was futile, she told the House. “No such alternative deal exists.”

Among the sticking points for rebels in her own party has been the intra-Ireland backstop, a feature of the agreement that would keep Britain inside the EU customs union in order to prevent a hard border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland. It only comes into effect if the two sides are unable to negotiate a new trade agreement by the end of 2020.

Labour’s leadership opposes May’s agreement and has repeatedly called for an election so that it can offer an alternative to voters. Mr. Corbyn rose to his feet after Tuesday’s vote to drive home his point. “This government has lost the confidence of the House,” he said.

However, Corbyn has been reluctant to push for a second referendum that could split his base. Should he fail to bring down May’s government via a parliamentary vote, pro-EU supporters are certain to step up the pressure on him.

At the same time, Labour MPs in pro-Leave seats will confront their own dilemma if another Brexit vote is held, says Helen Thompson, a professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge. Leave voters may object to the compromises that May has reached with EU negotiators, but they also want to make Brexit happen. “At a certain point there are a number of Labour MPs with a difficult decision to make,” she says.

While Parliament can pass laws and express its wishes, it can’t replace the government at the negotiating table. Should a cross-party bloc of MPs seek to change course, for example by asking the EU to delay Brexit, it would still need the government’s assent, says Dr. de Ruyter. And May has yet to change her negotiating stance toward Brexit, the issue that has defined her premiership ever since she took power in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum.

“The EU doesn’t negotiate with Parliament,” he says, “they negotiate with the government.”

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