- British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been defeated for a second time.
- The defeat means May will now hold a series of votes on leaving the European Union without a deal or delaying Brexit.
- Any delay would allow MPs to take control of Brexit.
- MPs are pushing for a softer Brexit or a second EU referendum.
LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal suffered another landslide defeat Tuesday after members of Parliament voted to reject it by a vote of 391 to 242.
The margin of defeat is ominous for the prime minister, who appears to have very few viable options left. So what will happen next?
The prime minister has committed to holding two key votes this week. The first, on Wednesday, will ask whether MPs support a no-deal Brexit. The second, on Thursday, will ask them whether they wish to delay Britain’s exit from the European Union by extending Article 50.
A majority of MPs have already voted to express opposition to no deal, and Parliament will most likely express its opposition again Wednesday.
The more significant question is about what happens Thursday. If Parliament votes for an Article 50 extension, May will be forced to request one in Brussels, a move that would be deeply unpopular with her party.
Here are a few outcomes that could follow:
1. A softer Brexit
Remain-supporting MPs are planning to table an amendment to Thursday’s motion, which, if passed, would force the government to hold a series of indicative votes in Parliament on Brexit outcomes, including a second referendum, a no-deal exit, and single-market membership.
That would put May in a very difficult position because there may be a parliamentary majority for a deal involving a permanent customs-union membership of the kind the Labour Party has backed. The support would most likely consist of some Tory MPs and most Labour MPs, but May is firmly opposed to such a policy.
If Parliament has expressed its support for a softer Brexit by Thursday, May would find it very difficult to ignore. At that point, Parliament would have much greater influence over the next stages of proceedings.
It is possible in such an outcome that the prime minister could be compelled to negotiate for a deal involving customs-union membership, something that would most likely require an extension of a couple of months.
The agreement between the EU and the UK published Monday stipulated that the UK would have to put forward members of the European Parliament for election if it failed to leave the EU before May 23, so that may be the cut-off date for a brief extension, during which the prime minister would attempt to negotiate a softer deal.
2. A no-deal Brexit
The prospect of a no-deal Brexit is not, by any means, off the table. The default legal position is that the UK will leave the EU, deal or no deal, on March 29, and it could still happen if the prime minister maneuvers to engineer such an outcome and if Parliament fails to coalesce around an alternative strategy.
It could happen for the simple reason that even extending Article 50 does not remove the possibility of a no-deal exit. Even if Parliament votes to force May to ask the EU for an Article 50 extension, she could simply ask for a delay of a few months. After that, the UK could still technically leave without a deal.
3. A long delay to Brexit
It is also possible that May or her replacement will ask the EU for a lengthy Article 50 extension to give Parliament the time to work out a proper strategy. Doing so would be politically explosive, and it seems unlikely that May would pursue such a policy against her will. It is possible, however, that MPs could table an amendment to Thursday’s motion stipulating that the prime minister should ask for an extension of a fixed time period – 12 or 20 months, perhaps. It is unclear, though, whether there is a parliamentary majority for such an outcome, as many MPs are worried about the prospect of being seen to frustrate Brexit.
Britain may have little choice but to seek a lengthier extension. With the EU setting a deadline of the last week of May for any short extension, the UK government may find itself forced into opting for a longer exit.
4. A general election
Conservative Grandee Simon Clarke, a leading Brexiteer who is a member of the European Research Group, broke ranks before Tuesday’s vote to say the prime minister should call a general election if she lost Tuesday’s vote. The logic is that the prime minister could campaign on a manifesto to deliver Brexit, increase her majority, and isolate the hardline Brexiteers. The problem is that the prime minister would need to increase her majority by a huge margin to deliver the kind of deal she is trying to push through.
But Clarke was not alone. There has been increasing chatter among Tory MPs that Downing Street could feel forced to call a snap election and that it could have the backing of a majority in Parliament (which would need to approve such a move because it would contravene the legally binding Fixed-term Parliament Act, which states that the next election will be in 2022).
“It seems unlikely, but so does every single other possible outcome,” one Conservative MP told Business Insider on Monday.
5. Theresa May resigns
In normal political times, May would have resigned several months ago. She has survived multiple catastrophic defeats in Parliament during her brief premiership, any one of which would previously have been a resigning matter.
But this is no normal government, and these are not normal times. There is some feeling that replacing her at this stage wouldn’t achieve very much, especially if she were replaced by a Brexiteer who tried to push through a similarly undeliverable deal. One former minister who voted against the deal tonight told Business Insider: “I’m not sure what replacing the prime minister would achieve.”
Furthermore, it is not technically possible for MPs to remove her as things stand because she survived a confidence vote in December, giving her 12 months of immunity from defenestration attempts.
Still, she could decide, or be persuaded to decide, that her premiership has run her course and that it is time to step down.
6. A second EU referendum
May has long refused to countenance the prospect of a second EU referendum, but the scale of the defeat and the prospect of a disastrous no-deal Brexit could lead to a change of heart.
One factor driving any change would be an offer by MPs to back the deal in exchange for holding a “confirmatory” referendum. This is the position pushed by Labour MP Peter Kyle and one that has been considered by the opposition Labour Party. Though still an outside possibility, the prospect of a second referendum can still not be ruled out.