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Theresa May's Brexit deal is likely to suffer a historic defeat. Here's what happens next.

"Tonight will be historic but for the wrong reasons."

by David Gilbert
Jan 15 2019, 12:45pm

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British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to suffer the biggest parliamentary defeat in 100 years Tuesday, with MPs set to overwhelmingly reject the Brexit deal she struck with the European Union.

The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU in 73 days, and May’s failure to secure parliamentary support for the terms of Britain’s withdrawal has increased the chance of the U.K. crashing out of the bloc, with potentially devastating economic consequences.

May postponed a vote on the deal last month, hoping to convince skeptical lawmakers within her own Conservative Party to support it. However, analysis by the Guardian and the BBC suggests she will lose by as many as 200 votes.

May urged MPs Monday to ”take a second look” at her deal, stressing that it was the only option on the table that could deliver an “orderly” exit from the EU.

It was an appeal unlikely to overcome trenchant divisions within parliament, and May now faces the prospect of having to return to the House later this week with an alternative exit strategy — even though there is currently no Plan B.

READ: This is the youth movement pushing for a second Brexit referendum

Here’s what will happen if lawmakers vote against May’s deal Tuesday evening:

Plan B

Parliament voted last week to force May to return to the House of Commons within three days with a new proposal should her current deal be rejected. But May currently has no alternative.

Reports suggest she will seek further concessions from Brussels and then present an almost identical deal to lawmakers, threatening that it is her deal or no deal. This may also be rejected, forcing May to return with another proposal. This process could be repeated until a deal is passed or Britain crashes out.

Vote of no confidence

The opposition Labour Party has said it will table a motion of no confidence in the government if May’s deal is voted down — and that could happen this week

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is committed to leaving the EU, says he is willing to lead the country through the crisis.

If the Labour motion does succeed, the party would have 14 days to show it could command a majority of lawmakers and form a government without the need for an election.

If the motion succeeds and Labour can’t form a majority, then a general election would be called.

Whitehall watchers however don’t believe Labour would win a no-confidence motion, as Conservative MPs would not want to give Corbyn the chance to fight and likely win a general election.


May could resign both as prime minister and leader of her party, triggering a leadership contest to replace her and install a new prime minister without an election.

A contested leadership vote could take up to 8 weeks to complete and likely exacerbate the already deep divisions within the Tory party.

If there was just a single candidate around which the party united — as happened when May replaced David Cameron — a replacement could be anointed within a week or 10 days.

Either way, May’s resignation would lead to the new leader seeking a temporary delay from Brussels on exiting the EU in order to have time to get a deal through parliament.

However, May cannot be ousted by her own party. She won a no-confidence vote last month among Tory members, and party rules say she cannot be challenged again for 12 months.

Second referendum

Calls for a second referendum — or a People’s Vote — are growing and there is a significant portion of the Labour Party who want one. But with May ruling out the possibility, the only way a second vote could be called is through a change in government, a change in prime minister, or an abrupt about-turn in policy from May.

Brexit delay

Without a viable plan in place, and with the deadline of March 29 looming, May could seek a delay in departing the EU. However, it is unclear how open lawmakers in Brussels would be to putting on hold what has become an open wound. This might be the only option, though, if there needs to be a general election or a second referendum.

Cancel Brexit

The European Court of Justice has ruled that the U.K. can cancel Brexit at any time and can do so without the consent of other EU members states. May has said this is not an option and the backlash from “leave” voters would be considerable.

No-deal Brexit

The U.K. is currently careening towards a no-deal Brexit, where it would cut ties with Europe overnight. Experts agree that such a scenario would have a disastrous impact on the British economy, as well as the neighboring European economies. Yet this currently looks like the most likely outcome.

Cover image: British Prime Minister, Theresa May arrives at Downing Street on January 14, 2019 in London, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)