What does Theresa May's resignation announcement mean for Brexit?

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  • UK Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that she will stand down if MPs back her Brexit deal.
  • However, her resignation announcement does not appear to have been decisive in winning sufficient support for her deal.
  • Opposition parties and Conservative Brexiteers have not swung behind the agreement in big enough numbers.
  • The UK government may not bring the deal back for another vote this week.

LONDON – Theresa May announced on Wednesday that she would resign as prime minister once Brexit is concluded, in a last-ditch attempt to win support from Conservative MPs for her withdrawal agreement from the European Union.

The announcement initially appeared to have some success in persuading prominent Conservative Brexiteers, including her former foreign secretary, to support her.

But within hours, the rush of steam that had inflated her deal quickly evaporated. The Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government, said it would continue to oppose the deal regardless. Hopes that members might be persuaded to abstain in another vote were also quashed.

“We don’t abstain when it comes to the Union,” the party’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said.

The DUP’s announcement also triggered a rapid about-turn from several Conservative Brexiteers. About a day after saying he would support the deal, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the anti-EU European Research Group of Conservative MPs, told ITV he would no longer support it.

In a wood-panelled room inside Parliament, members of the group, which has dominated the debate over May’s deal in Westminster, loudly cheered and hugged their deputy leader, Steve Baker, as he confirmed he would continue to oppose the deal.

“I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river,” Baker told them in a remarkable speech later briefed to Business Insider.

“These fools and knaves and cowards are voting on things they don’t even understand. We’ve been put in this place by people whose addiction to power without responsibility has led them to put the choice of no Brexit or this deal.

“I may yet resign the whip than be part of this.”

What happens next?

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With the DUP and significant numbers of Conservative Brexiteers still firmly opposed to the deal, May’s only hope of winning support for it moves onto Conservative Remainers and Labour MPs.

But with those MPs moving instead to support votes for a softer Brexit, a second referendum, or the revocation of Article 50, that hope is distant.

For many Labour MPs, May’s resignation announcement has decreased the chance that they will back her deal. With a vote for the deal now meaning a Conservative leadership election and likely a subsequent general election, most Brexit-leaning Labour MPs could be even more reluctant to support the prime minister.

As House of Commons Speaker John Bercow also insisted on Wednesday that he would use all his powers to block a third vote on the deal, the odds of May ever winning agreement for her deal are rapidly diminishing.

And the odds that the government will even attempt to bring the deal back to the Commons on Friday as planned do not look good.

Instead, the action is likely to move to Monday, when MPs attempt to win support for one of the alternatives that came close to gaining a majority on Wednesday. The two options with the most support were leaving the EU with a customs union, and holding a second referendum.

However, many of those who passionately back the former are bitterly opposed to the latter, and many of those who passionately support the latter are bitterly opposed to the former, so either option winning a majority on Monday still looks difficult.

Britain is heading for a long Brexit delay

Throughout this process, it has been clear what Parliament opposes: May’s deal, and leaving the EU without a deal.

However, with just two weeks to go until the new deadline for leaving the EU, it remains unclear what if any alternative to those outcomes it will support.

And without that clarity, the chance that Britain will be forced into seeking a long extension to Brexit – of potentially a year or more – looks increasingly likely.

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