- UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been defeated for the third time.
- The result means Britain is due to leave the European Union on April 12 unless it agrees to a lengthy delay with the EU.
- Rumours of a general election are circulating in Westminster.
- The European Council’s president said it would hold an emergency summit on April 10.
- Downing Street appears determined to bring back a vote for the fourth time next week.
- Parliament could move next week to force May into a softer Brexit.
LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan was rejected on Friday for the third time, setting up a further clash between the government and MPs next week.
A vote on her withdrawal agreement, which forms part of her overall plan for leaving the European Union, was rejected by 344 votes to 286.
Her wider Brexit package had twice been rejected by large margins.
But the prime minister had hoped that separating the withdrawal agreement, which deals with divorce issues from the EU, from the political declaration, which deals with the future UK-EU relationship, would secure her a majority.
Approval of the withdrawal agreement on Friday would have secured May a short Brexit extension, until mid-May, but its failure has thrown further uncertainty on the future of Brexit as the UK’s April 12 departure date edges closer.
On Friday afternoon, the European Council’s president announced it would hold an emergency summit on April 10 to find a way forward.
So what happens next?
On Monday, Parliament is set to hold a second round of so-called indicative votes, in which backbenchers seize control of the parliamentary agenda and hold a series of nonbinding votes to see what type of exit – if any – could command support from MPs. And the implications could be seismic.
Parliament is trying desperately to find a Brexit compromise that could command a majority in the Commons. In the first round of indicative votes, on Wednesday, no single plan received backing from a majority of MPs. But those eight options are likely to be whittled down to perhaps two or three on Monday as rival camps for a softer Brexit seek to compromise.
There is also talk that a preferential voting system could be introduced, which would force one plan to emerge as the favourite.
A customs union?
The plan most likely to command a majority on Monday is a permanent customs union, which lost by only eight votes on Wednesday. Several dozen MPs would be minded toward a customs union if other softer Brexit options were taken off the table.
Supposing Parliament votes in favour of a customs union, would May move to negotiate such a deal? The EU would almost certainly be willing to reopen the political declaration and include permanent customs-union membership as a condition of the future UK-EU relationship.
But the prime minister would be highly reluctant to do so. A customs-union membership commanded the support of 265 MPs on Wednesday, but only 33 Tory MPs. May is acutely aware that moving toward a permanent customs union would be so divisive within the Conservative ranks that it could tear the party in two.
The other possibility – if May is not willing to move to a customs union – is that Parliament could bypass the executive and legislate for such an outcome itself. It’s unclear exactly how, but backbenchers have already seized control of the Commons agenda once to run indicative votes and would almost certainly try to do so again.
A fourth meaningful vote
That could come in the form of a straightforward meaningful vote, or by tabling the Withdrawal Agreement Bill with a commitment to let parliament dictate the mandate for next phase of negotiations.
Also under consideration is a plan to let MPs vote in a run-off contest between the most popular plan from Monday’s indicative votes and the prime minister’s own deal.
All those strategies would struggle to win the prime minister’s deal a majority. The numbers of MPs voting against the government have been reduced at each time of asking but there is still no clear majority for the plan.
The DUP remains implacably opposed to the Withdrawal Agreement and significant numbers of Tory Brexiteers are unlikely to budge.
The number of Labour MPs prepared to rebel on Friday against the whip to vote for the government was just 7, significantly below the figures Downing Street needs to win a majority.
Talk of an impending general election is dominating discussions in Westminster.
Responding to the result, May hinted that it could be in the cards, telling MPs, “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.”
The problem is not that Labour would vote against it – the party has spent the past two years calling for one, so the leadership would probably need to whip MPs in support.
Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, two-thirds of MPs would have to vote for a general election, but most Tory MPs don’t want May to lead them into another general election and would be highly unlikely to vote for one while she is the leader.
But a general election with a new Tory leader is a distinct possibility. The prime minister has already said she would resign to let a successor lead the next phase of negotiations, and if she is unable to secure a majority for her deal, she may be forced to do so even earlier than planned.
A new leader could, in theory, call an election on the grounds that they needed to seek a new mandate, something Theresa May did herself in 2017, albeit to disastrous effect.
A lengthy extension?
As it stands, the UK will leave the EU, with or without a deal, on April 12.
Parliament has rejected a no-deal Brexit, making the choice facing MPs binary: either approve May’s deal – perhaps with permanent customs-union membership – or by April 12 ask the EU for a much longer extension to Article 50, likely until the end of this year at least.
The prime minister is determined to avoid an extension, because it would mean the UK would be forced to participate in European Parliament elections in May. But she might find she has no choice.
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