May’s Brexit plan rejected again. Is UK running out of options?

Why We Wrote This

The deadline for Brexit is not even three weeks away, and Britain still hasn’t agreed on what comes next. With time dwindling away, the path forward for Theresa May’s government and Parliament is narrow.

Simon Dawson/Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street in London on March 12, hours before her withdrawal agreement was voted down for a second time.

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For the second time in two months, Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for Brexit has been overwhelmingly defeated in the House of Commons in Parliament. With time running out before Britain’s scheduled March 29 exit from the European Union, the options remaining for Ms. May and Parliament are few.

Ms. May has pledged to hold a series of votes in the coming days to allow Parliament to decide if it wants to leave the EU without a deal, and whether it wants to extend the deadline for completing Britain’s withdrawal. Most analysts see an extension until May or June as the most likely outcome given the widespread opposition among MPs to a no-deal Brexit.

To pro-EU politicians who favor a second referendum that could overturn the results of the first, a vote to extend presents an opportunity. And while Ms. May has repeatedly scorned the idea as undemocratic, a second referendum could offer a way to muster public support for her deal. “The most likely scenario that the EU would agree to, and is in the prime minister’s best interests,” says Thom Brooks, a politics professor, “is a referendum on her deal or no Brexit.”

Nearly three years after voting in a referendum to leave the European Union, and 17 days before its expected departure, Britain is no closer to a political consensus on how to leave or whether to rethink its exit.

In another stunning defeat, members of Parliament on Tuesday rejected the government’s withdrawal agreement with the EU by a margin of 149 votes. It was a setback for Prime Minister Theresa May who has spent months trying to square the circle between the promises of pro-Brexit politicians of the United Kingdom being unshackled from EU membership and the reality of a messy divorce after decades of convergence.

Tuesday’s vote in Parliament came two months after a similar crushing defeat for Ms. May, who leads a minority Conservative government that is deeply divided over Brexit. MPs voted down Ms. May’s agreement, despite a last-minute effort to secure legal tweaks to a contingency plan for intra-Ireland trade that had proved toxic last time.

Ms. May rose to speak briefly after the votes were announced. She said Parliament would vote Wednesday on a motion on blocking a no-deal Brexit on March 29, followed by another vote the following day on whether to extend the deadline. She insisted that it was still possible to reach consensus on an orderly exit.

“I’m passionate about delivering the results of the referendum but I equally passionately believe that the best way to do that is to leave in an orderly way with a deal. And I still believe that there is a majority in the house for that course of action,” she said.

Most analysts see an extension until May or June as the most likely outcome given the widespread opposition among MPs to a no-deal Brexit. But the government has said little about what it might do during any extension to break the deadlock in Parliament.

To pro-EU politicians who favor a second referendum that could overturn the results of the first, a vote to extend presents an opportunity. And while Ms. May has repeatedly scorned the idea as undemocratic, a second referendum could offer a way to muster public support for her deal as the only way to stop Brexit from being undone. It would also satisfy European leaders whose consent would be needed for any extension.

“The most likely scenario that the EU would agree to, and is in the prime minister’s best interests, is a referendum on her deal or no Brexit,” says Thom Brooks, a politics professor and the dean of Durham Law School in northeast England.

Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Anti-Brexit and pro-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on March 12.

Holding such a referendum would take a minimum of 10 weeks for the campaign and would require Parliamentary legislation, says David Hannay, a former U.K. ambassador to the EU who is a member of the House of Lords. This means a longer extension than Ms. May has indicated. “That all carries you quite a way down the track,” says Mr. Hannay, who favors a second referendum.

European leaders are holding a summit next week at which any U.K. request for an extension would likely be tabled. Still, there’s no guarantee for Britain that the EU will grant an extension, warns Alex de Ruyter, director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University. And the clock is still ticking. “If the U.K. doesn’t articulate a request to EU in time, [Brexit] may still happen by default,” he says.

Speaking earlier, her hoarse voice barely audible at times, Ms. May painted a dim picture of the next steps in the event of defeat for her deal. “The choices could be bleak,” she told MPs, noting that a no-deal exit, which some in her own party favor, would significantly harm Britain’s economy.

She added that an extension to the deadline for leaving could still end in the U.K. crashing out of the EU, if no mutual deal can be reached. It would be no good blaming the EU for such a messy ending, she told MPs. “Responsibility would lie with this house.”

In a tweet sent after the vote, Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator on Brexit, seemed to concur. He tweeted, “The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. The impasse can only be solved in the #UK. Our ‘no-deal’ preparations are now more important than ever before.”

Much of Tuesday’s debate turned on legal tweaks to the deal’s so-called backstop to deal with intra-Ireland trade. In January, MPs opposed to Ms. May’s deal cited the advice of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox that the backstop – an insurance policy to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member – could be extended indefinitely.

Mr. Cox told MPs today that the government had secured new guarantees to reduce the risk of this happening. If the EU was found to have acted in bad faith in negotiating a comprehensive trade deal with the U.K., then Britain could pull out, he said. But government critics on the Conservative benches did not seem mollified, calling it too little too late.

Boris Johnson, a former foreign secretary seen as a rival for Ms. May’s position, called the new legal documents “an apron of fig leafs” to hide a bad deal. Nor did it satisfy the DUP, the Northern Ireland party on which Ms. May depends for her parliamentary majority.

The Northern Ireland backstop was originally proposed by the U.K. as a way to avoid inflaming sectarianism two decades after the Good Friday agreement to end its conflict. But it has assumed totemic powers in the Brexit debate as Ms. May’s backbench critics saw it as a tool for the EU to trap the U.K. in a customs union without an exit.

This rhetoric has proved hard to dispel, says Mr. Hannay. “To say that it’s a trap is to presume bad faith by the EU,” he says. “I think that’s frankly a bit absurd.”

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