British politics is in total chaos as the Brexit deadline looms

“This is a catastrophic defeat for May.”
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How many embarrassing defeats can one politician suffer in a lifetime? That is a question British Prime Minister Theresa May seems intent on finding out.

May padded her resume Tuesday, experiencing another resounding political defeat when members of her own Conservative party joined with Labour MPs in overwhelmingly opposing her proposed Brexit deal — just 10 weeks before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union.


With the tides against her, May warned parliament before the vote that rejecting her proposal would mean “uncertainty, division and the very real risk of no deal.”

Yet most MPs seemed fine with that risk, voting 432 votes to 202 — a historic majority of 230 — against May’s deal, gleefully posting pictures of themselves in the process.

“This is a catastrophic defeat for May,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose party voted overwhelmingly against the deal.

READ: Theresa May is locked in Brexit hell

May’s European counterparts in ongoing Brexit negotiations seemed equally flummoxed by the latest debacle.

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said Wednesday in Strasbourg that Brexit was at a “standstill” as British lawmakers had failed to offer an alternative they would be willing to support.

May now faces another sobering reality: a vote of no confidence and the increasingly likely chances that Britain will crash out of the EU with no deal at all.

Chaos and uncertainty

Within minutes of the announcement of the result, Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence in the government, which will be debated Wednesday before lawmakers vote later in the day.

Most political commentators — and Labour MPs — expect May to survive the vote, as the members of her own party who voted against her deal Tuesday do not want a general election where Corbyn could succeed her as prime minister.

Should May survive, she says she will return to parliament next week with a new deal, but a statement by her spokesman Wednesday suggests she is not willing to significantly shift on her red lines.


“We want to deliver an orderly Brexit with a deal. One that protects our union, gives us control of our borders, laws, and money, and means we have an independent trade policy,” the spokesman said.

May will hold cross-party talks with “senior parliamentarians” this week to try and find consensus for a deal that will get the backing of the House of Commons — but May’s colleague Andrea Leadsom suggested Wednesday that those talks would not include Corbyn.

Asked by the BBC if May would be speaking to the Labour leader, Leadsom said: “She will be speaking with senior parliamentarians.”

Unsurprisingly, this led to a backlash from Labour members:

And confusion among the press:

Time is running out

The problem for May and her government is that there is very little time left to negotiate a new deal with the EU and very little appetite in Brussels to grant any significant concessions.

If May does not extend Article 50 — or cancel Brexit completely — the U.K. will automatically leave the EU at 11 p.m. on March 29.

Part of the problem is that not only is there no clear consensus about what to do within May’s Conservative Party, the main opposition party is also deeply divided about how to proceed.

If a consensus cannot be reached in time, the U.K. will crash out of Europe with no deal in place, with potentially catastrophic economic consequences for the country and the continent. May said Tuesday that a no deal Brexit was not an option, but European leaders are not so sure:


Barnier pointed out that while the defeat in the Commons Tuesday showed what MPs don’t want, it is still unclear what they do want.

“Listening to the public statements made by the members of the House of Commons, we regret to say made us sad, they were due to various motivations, sometimes quite contradictory or opposing views,” Barnier said Wednesday.

“Objectively speaking, this vote is not a clear manifestation of a positive majority which would define an alternative project, and an alternative to the proposal on the table today,” Barnier added.

A second referendum?

While both May and Corbyn had said they do not want a second referendum — referred to as a People’s Vote — there are growing calls for a delay to Brexit to ask voters again if they want to leave the EU.

Many within May’s own party support the call, with backbencher Dominic Grieve saying Tuesday that he sees “sound democratic reasons for asking the electorate to confirm what it wants to do.”

Corbyn has said he would prefer a general election to a second referendum, but his colleague Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said Wednesday the ultimate decision on a second referendum would be “decided by the democratic wishes of our party members.”

Seventy-one Labour MPs signed a letter Wednesday calling on Corbyn to support a second referendum:

A poll published Tuesday showed that if a second referendum was held, a majority of 54 percent could vote to remain inside the EU.

Cover image: British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Number 10 Downing Street for Parliament on January 15, 2019 in London, England. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)