British Prime Minister Theresa May was dealt her third and perhaps final blow by Parliament on Friday, in her long struggle to push through her negotiated deal for leaving the European Union. Lawmakers across the spectrum in the bitterly divided legislative chamber have united in their months-long opposition to May’s plan. May, after months of negotiations in Brussels produced a universally despised compromise, had offered to resign in a last ditch effort to bring her political opponents together in support of the deal.
Supporters of the plan had hoped that May’s offer to step down as prime minister would prevent a dreaded no-deal Brexit. “The legal default is now that the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on April 12th,” May said, after beseeching lawmakers to rally around what she had long argued was the country’s last hope for a stable departure. The alternative, she said, would be to ask the European Union for a delayed departure, something she warned would indefinitely prolong the process of leaving.
“I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House,” May said after the vote. “The implications of this House’s decision are grave.”
May’s government lost in a vote of 344 to 286, a significant though closer margin than the previous two votes. The first vote on the withdrawal agreement in January was 432 to 202, the largest-ever margin of defeat for a bill introduced by the prime minister. Outside the Parliament building, thousands of angry Brexit supporters gathered in protest, carrying signs saying “Believe in Britain” and “No Deal? No Problem.” That was in contrast to last Saturday in London, when hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out for a march against Brexit and in support of a second referendum. With the official deadline just two weeks away, it is unclear which of these routes the country will travel.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the country’s left-wing Labour party, has endorsed the second referendum option, although MPs within his party have pushed back at the suggestion. “One way or another, we will do everything in our power to prevent no deal and oppose a damaging Tory Brexit based on Theresa May’s overwhelmingly rejected deal,” he said in a meeting of party MPs at the end of February. Corbyn sent out a similar letter to MP’s last month acknowledging his endorsement, “even where it can be read as going beyond our policy,” of the Beckett-Kyle-Wilson Amendment, which calls for a “confirmatory vote” by the British public on Brexit before Parliament can ratify any deal.
Carbyn’s call for Labour MPs to fall in line, however, was met with notable resistance from some important players in the party. Corbyn’s shadow housing minister, Melanie Onn, resigned her position in order to vote against the amendment. Three other shadow ministers, or leading members of the opposition party in the UK who “shadow” sitting cabinet ministers, abstained in protest of Corbyn’s request.
Their opposition, it seems, to Corbyn’s request comes not from a desire to prevent a second referendum but from the possibility that, if the Leave motion was again endorsed by the British public, it would compel Parliament to ratify May’s deal. “Our policy is clearly that we would support a public vote to stop no deal or to stop a bad deal, but not that we would allow a bad deal as long as the public had the opportunity to reject Brexit altogether,” said Barry Gardiner, one of the protesting MPs. Spokespeople for Corbyn have suggested that the party’s leadership will take punitive action against the group.
Without either a second referendum or a delayed departure date (a complicated undertaking that would have to be negotiated, again, with EU diplomats in Brussels), Britain will leave the European Union without a plan for trade, immigration, and travel in place. The European Commission released a statement of regret following the vote, and said that the no-deal scenario was now, in their estimation, the “likely” outcome. The statement also sought to dispel any notions that last-minute piecemeal arrangements could be made to soften the blow.
“The EU has been preparing for this since December 2017 and is now fully prepared for a ‘no-deal’ scenario at midnight on 12 April,” it said. “The EU will remain united. The benefits of the Withdrawal Agreement, including a transition period, will in no circumstances be replicated in a ‘no-deal’ scenario. Sectoral mini-deals are not an option.”
The president of the European Commission, Donald Tusk, scheduled a meeting for April 10, two days before the deadline.
In the run-up to Friday’s vote, there was hope for the first time in this process that May might actually push through her deal. A slew of hard-line Brexiteers, members of May’s own majority bloc in Parliament who have routinely voted against her deal and denounced it as a “soft Brexit,” signaled their willingness to accept May’s offer to resign. Most prominent among them was Dominic Raab, the former Brexit secretary who resigned his position earlier this year. Raab said on Friday that he was changing his vote in order to avoid losing Brexit altogether. Boris Johnson, too, one of the original architects of Brexit who is seen by many to have fled the scene after helping to push through the original referendum three years ago, gave his begrudging support to the deal.
While the deal piqued the interest of some leading Brexiteers, Labour leaders were less enthused about the prospect of a new conservative prime minister. “It could be a Boris Johnson Brexit, a Jacob Rees-Mogg Brexit, or a Michael Gove Brexit,” said Keir Starmer, a Labour MP, in reference to some of the big-name Brexit advocates. As bad as Labour lawmakers consider May’s Brexit plan to be, contending with one of the more adamant Brexit supporter would perhaps be an even less fruitful endeavor, should that be possible.
All of this, of course, came to nothing. With the official deadline less than two weeks away, it is still remarkably unclear what will happen. A representative from May’s office said that the prime minister was nonetheless continuing to pursue a path for her deal to be accepted. “Clearly it is not the result we wanted,” they told the BBC. “But, that said, we have had a number of Conservative colleagues who felt able to vote with the government today. They have done so in higher numbers than previously.” The source went on to say that there was “more work to do” and that things were progressing “in the right direction.”
The most frightening issue going forward is that no one in Britain or elsewhere seems confidently to know what direction that is. Beneath all of this is the impending threat of serious economic fallout from a no-deal departure. Economists and experts across the board have expressed relative certainty in the at least short-term disaster that would follow Britain’s uncontrolled crash out of the European Union, though the degree of potential damage is unknown.
May said in Parliament that the result of the vote was “a matter of profound regret.” Once upon a time, the Conservative party government at large was to blame for the crisis surrounding Brexit. But Theresa May, though perhaps less responsible for Brexit itself than her hardline counterparts like Mr. Johnson, has long since become the sole focus of scrutiny and ire both in and outside of Britain. An op-ed in Friday’s New York Times titled “Is Theresa May the Worst Politician Ever?” captures the tone well. Her failure to win the support of her majority bloc in Parliament will, it seems, define her legacy in office.