The United Kingdom is in crisis after Members of Parliament soundly rejected a withdrawal deal with the European Union and threw the government’s Brexit plan into chaos.
The clock is now ticking as Prime Minister Theresa May scrambles for a way out of the Brexit impasse while facing a confidence vote in her government.
The defeat on Tuesday by 432 to 202 dealt a humiliating blow to Ms. May, who saw 118 of her Conservative Party colleagues vote against the agreement, which also included a framework for future trade negotiations. It is the largest Parliamentary defeat for a British government since 1924. The result means that with just 11 weeks to go before the March 29 deadline for Britain to leave the EU, the government is no closer to reaching arrangements with the EU on issues including trade, border controls, transportation and financial services.
After the vote, Ms. May acknowledged the scale of the defeat but refused to resign, and she admonished MPs for not doing enough to indicate “what the House does support.” She promised to meet with other party leaders this week to find a solution. “I’ve always believed that the best way forward is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal,” she told MPs. “I believe it is my duty to deliver on [the 2016 Brexit referendum] and I intend to do so. Every day that passes without this issue being resolved means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancour.”
However, she faced an immediate challenge from Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who quickly moved a motion of no confidence in the government. If successful, it would result in an election. The Brexit vote was “a catastrophic defeat for this government,” Mr. Corbyn told the House before slamming Ms. May’s offer to work with other parties. “She’s only attempting to reach out now to keep her failed process alive.” Ms. May’s government is expected to survive the vote on the motion on Wednesday. The Conservatives do not hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but their allies, members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have said they will back the government.
Tuesday’s result was greeted with a huge roar of cheers from thousands of people who gathered in a park outside Parliament in a carnival-like atmosphere to watch the vote on giant television screens. Many waved EU flags and held up signs calling for Brexit to be scrapped. “We need to see another [Brexit] referendum,” said Katy Barnett, who wants the country to remain in the EU. “With people knowing what it is that they are actually voting for this time.”
Down the street, Mike McFadden also rejoiced amid a group of pro-Brexit revellers who rang a giant bell and beat on a drum. He believes Britain should leave the EU without a deal and then negotiate a trade agreement. “What I want them to do is go to [World Trade Organization] rules and pull out of the EU totally,” he said. “I think no deal is the only deal.”
Ms. May has until Monday to bring a new proposal to Parliament. But groups of MPs from all parties have already launched plans to seize control of the Brexit process by pushing for another referendum or cancelling Brexit altogether. There’s no clear alternative to Ms. May’s deal, and the likelihood is growing that Britain could leave the bloc without an agreement. “The path forward is far from clear,” said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent. “The odds of an extension to [the March 29 deadline] and a second referendum have both narrowed. Meanwhile, there is a glaring lack of consensus both in Parliament and the electorate as to what should happen next.”
The EU has expressed a willingness to help Ms. May get the deal approved, but just how far the bloc will go is not clear. Up to now, the EU has refused to consider any legally binding changes that could have satisfied some of Ms. May’s fiercest critics. On Tuesday, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, which represents EU leaders, urged the British government “to clarify its intentions with respect to next steps as soon as possible.” He added that the “risk of a disorderly exit has increased with this vote, and while we do not want this to happen, we will be prepared for it.”
The main stumbling block has been a provision in the withdrawal agreement that guarantees no border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Critics of what’s known as a “backstop” argue it could tie Britain to the EU for an indefinite period, which would defeat the purpose of Brexit. Ms. May and the EU have insisted the backstop would be in place only while both sides negotiated a broader trade deal, although that could take years. On Tuesday, Ms. May said a potential solution could be to put a time limit on the backstop, but it’s not certain the EU would agree.
Many MPs want the backstop dropped. “From our point of view, the thing that would have been essential to get this matter through the House with our support wasn’t even asked for – which would have been the changes that will eliminate the trap of the backstop,” DUP MP Nigel Dodds said on Monday.
Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said Ms. May will likely try once more to reach a deal, “hoping that desperation and panic may bring more MPs on all sides into her camp.” The Prime Minister “could get [a deal] if she is prepared to soften Brexit and get Labour, or at least Labour MPs, on board and finally turn her back on her own ‘Brextremists’. If she’s not sufficiently flexible to do that, then – unless a fair few of those Brextremists come over to her side lest Brexit not happen at all, then a second referendum is indeed possible.”
The Globe and Mail, January 15, 2019