Prime Minister Theresa May suffered another humiliating Brexit defeat Tuesday, leaving Britain's exit from the European union in chaos — just 16 days before the deadline to leave.
Lawmakers in parliament rejected the PM’s latest Brexit proposal by 391 votes to 242, a slightly narrower loss than the historic defeat she suffered two months ago, but embarrassing all the same.
“The result was a disaster for the Prime Minister, worse than expected and shows her diminished authority and the weakness and division of the Conservative Party,” Thomas Raines, head of the Europe Program at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News.
May spent the last two months trying — and failing — to secure meaningful concessions from the EU to placate Euro-skeptic members of her own party and the Democratic Unionist Party that props up her minority government.
The major sticking point remains the so-called Irish backstop, a mechanism to retain an open border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU.
Many pro-Brexit MPs in the ruling Conservative Party complain that the backstop as an underhand way of tying the U.K. to the EU indefinitely, so have consistently voted against the deal put forward by their own party.
In the end, May presented an almost identical agreement to the one defeated in January, with what she argued were some “major legal changes.” However, it was clear early Tuesday that her bid was likely to fail when Attorney General Geoffrey Cox issued legal advice about the new agreement, saying that the core issue of the Irish backstop remained “unchanged.”
May now faces the prospect of returning to Brussels to seek an extension to Article 50 — the legal process that triggered the U.K.’s departure from the EU — that was triggered two years ago — though it’s not clear if the EU will be willing to make such a concession.
“I am against every extension, whether an extension of one day, one week, even 24 hours if it is not based on a clear opinion of the House of Commons for something, that we know what they want,” EU Brexit spokesman Guy Verhofstadt said in Brussels Wednesday morning.
Where does Britain go from here?
Amid the chaos May did outline some immediate next steps but beyond the next few days the country remains clueless about what to do next.
Parliament will vote Wednesday on whether to deliberately crash out of the EU without a deal. However, there is little support among lawmakers for this option, so it’s highly unlikely to pass.
But, “this doesn’t actually change the legal default, which is that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March,” Raines said. “To avoid this the UK needs to change domestic law and agree an extension with the EU.”
If the no deal motion is rejected, lawmakers will return Thursday to vote on whether or not to delay Brexit by seeking an extension from the EU.
All indications suggest May will seek a short extension of a couple of months but the EU has already said it would need "a credible justification" to agree to this.
Complicating matters, EU elections are scheduled for May. If the U.K. has not left the bloc by the time the elections roll around, they will have to hold EU elections across the U.K. or face a legal challenge in the courts if they don’t.
What about a second referendum?
If lawmakers vote for an extension to Article 50 and it is granted by the EU, there are multiple possible routes forward.
- Second referendum: While a return to the polls is part of the opposition Labour Party’s official policies, leader Jeremy Corbyn did not bring it up in his comments after May’s defeat Tuesday — though it remains a popular solution among many opposition lawmakers.
- Further negotiations: May could use any additional time granted by the EU to try and advance negotiations, but based on the reaction from Brussels Tuesday she is unlikely to have much success. “What can happen in three months that hasn't happened in two years?” Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics Department of Government, told VICE News.
- General election: the opposition could table a vote of no confidence in May, triggering a general election — though there appears little political appetite for such a move just 16 days out from Brexit deadline. “A new government – or even a new general election – would solve nothing unless it also led to a new Brexit policy, or to no Brexit,” Professor Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director General of Royal United Services Institute, told VICE News.
- Softer Brexit: May could seek to embrace a softer Brexit along the lines of the Labour Party’s suggestion that Britain becomes part of a customs union with the EU — a halfway position between in and out. May’s spokesperson said Tuesday a custom union was not on the cards, but with two weeks to go before the deadline it remains a possibility.
What has been the reaction in Europe?
European lawmakers speaking in Brussels Wednesday morning reiterated the dangers of Britain crashing out of the EU, adding that there is no guarantee of an extension even if May seeks one.
“We are at a critical point,” the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said. “The risk of no-deal has never been higher. That is the risk of an exit — even by accident — by the UK from the EU in a disorderly fashion. I urge you please not to underestimate the risk or its consequences.”
In order for the U.K. to secure an extension to the Article 50 process, it would need unanimous agreement from all 27 EU member states.
Barnier added that there would be no more discussions about a new deal.
“Why would we extend these discussions? The discussion on Article 50 is done and dusted. We have the withdrawal agreement. It is there.”
No deal is still a possibility
Even if lawmakers reject the no deal proposal Wednesday, there is still a chance that the U.K. could crash out on March 29 if no extension is granted — and that would be catastrophic for everyone.
"We reckon 20 percent of jobs could be at risk," Nigel Driffield, Professor of International Business at Warwick Business School, told VICE News. Driffield and his colleagues published research into the impact of a no deal Brexit Tuesday.
The U.K. government published Wednesday its plans for what would happen in a no deal scenario, announcing a temporary scheme that would see 87 percent of imports cut to zero tariffs — up from the current level of 80 percent.
This is designed to protect some industries such as agriculture, but it is likely to antagonize EU countries who will be asked to buy goods from the U.K. that have not been subject to the same tariffs their products have.
"How is that going to work?” Driffield asks. “This is basically how trade wars start.”
Cover image: Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during the Brexit debate in the House of Commons, London. (House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)