LONDON—It’s 17 days until Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union. For just under two years, the British government has diverted all of its energy into hammering out a deal to ensure its exit was as smooth as possible. On Tuesday night, it appeared that those efforts had amounted to absolutely nothing—and no one knows what happens next.
Despite Theresa May’s desperate 11th-hour attempts to polish her Brexit deal into something acceptable to lawmakers after they rejected it with the most overwhelming government defeat in British parliamentary history in January, the rejigged deal was knocked back again this evening in another whopping, and humiliating defeat—by 391 votes to 242.
The prime minister flew back from Strasbourg late Monday night with what she proudly claimed were “legally binding” changes to her deal. She said the changes meant the Irish backstop—the controversial measure designed to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland—could not “become permanent” as anti-EU lawmakers had feared.
She presented the plan to lawmakers in Parliament on Tuesday morning—but a familiar disaster befell her. Clearly feeling the strain of the late-night negotiations, her voice failed her and she croaked and spluttered her way through her crucial chance to sell her deal. It wasn’t the first time: She famously suffered every keynote speaker’s worst nightmare in 2017 when her voice failed and her backdrop fell to pieces at the Tory party annual conference.
Lawmakers were not convinced by the faltering performance. Britain’s Attorney General Geoffrey Cox published legal advice Tuesday morning which rejected the idea that the changes would allow Britain to legally decide to exit the backstop without the agreement of the EU, potentially forcing it to adhere to the bloc’s customs rules against its will.
The staunchly anti-EU wing of May’s Conservative party, the European Research Group, announced they couldn’t back it. Then the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party—whose support May relies on for winning votes with her minority government—also disowned it. Its fate was sealed hours before the results came in on Tuesday evening.
“It’s a shitshow,” one Conservative MP told The Daily Beast. Another, Sir Mike Penning, said: “It’s reached the stage where we don’t know what the hell is going to happen.”
What happens next doesn’t seem to be clear to anyone.
In the short term, there’s likely to be two more key votes in the House of Commons this week. One will determine whether Parliament consents to leave the EU with no deal—which, based on previous results, is likely to be rejected. The other will see lawmakers vote on whether to extend the 29 March 2019 deadline the U.K. set itself to leave the EU nearly two years ago. That result is harder to predict as even lawmakers who think it’s a good idea will face a backlash from some constituents who will accuse them of trying to abandon the entire Brexit project.
What happens in the longer term is anyone’s guess. Lawmakers are talking about a number of scenarios: a third vote on May’s deal either before or after a deadline extension; the highly uncertain scenario of leaving with no deal; or taking it to the public with a second referendum, or even a general election.
In one scenario forecast by Tory grandee Sir Charles Walker, May will now be forced to call a general election to try and end the impasse. The vice chairman of the influential Conservative 1922 Committee said the administration had dissolved into chaos and—for the first time in at least a century—Britain’s government was incapable of functioning. “If it was a horse with a broken fetlock, this Parliament, you’d probably put it down,” he said on Sky News.
There is also frustration among the more pragmatic MPs who feel the prime minister has done everything she can to compromise with the pro-Brexit lawmakers, and their intransigence is now the only thing that could prevent Brexit entirely. One possibility—if all other options such as no deal or a deadline extension are ruled out—is that the deal is voted on a third time and, faced with prospect no Brexit happening at all, it’s passed.
“The reality is Brexiteer MPs need to come on board,” Paul Masterton MP told The Daily Beast. “If they don’t, then they are putting their precious project at risk. This is as Brexity as it’s going to get for them. If the deal is defeated then all bets are off."
One of the few Conservative MPs who fell in behind May on Tuesday night after previously voting against the deal said he was partly motivated by the new concessions from Brussels but “more importantly if we don’t, there’s a good chance we won’t get any form of Brexit at all.”
Penning, who helped run May’s leadership campaign, had previously described the prime minister’s deal as “dead as a dodo” but he told The Daily Beast he had changed his mind because he feared his parliamentary colleagues would vote later this week “to block hard Brexit, which means we’ve got no negotiating position; so we’re stuffed—in this limbo forever and a day.”
However, Penning rejected Walker’s suggestion of a general election. “Charlie is entitled to his opinion but firstly you need two-thirds of the House to vote for it, that ain’t gonna happen,” he said. Penning dismissed speculation that No. 10 had encouraged Walker to go rogue in TV and radio studios ahead of the vote in order to try and scare a few more Conservatives into backing the prime minister.
“You don’t know Charlie Walker; he’s a very independently minded MP.”
In a bid to stave off an earlier defeat, May was forced to accept that if her deal was rejected for a second time, she would allow MPs to hold a vote the following day on whether they would accept a no-deal Brexit. Since the triggering of Article 50—Britain’s formal request to leave the EU—a two-year countdown to March 29, 2019, began. According to legislation passed by the House and still on the books, Britain will automatically plunge out of the EU in 17 days even if there is no withdrawal agreement.
A large majority of MPs believe that would be extremely damaging to Britain as decades of trade deals, cross-border agreements, regulations and rights would disappear in a puff of smoke. It is therefore likely that the House of Commons will vote against no deal, that prospect increased when May reacted to her defeat by declaring that there would be a “free vote”—that means the government effectively does not even have a policy on one of the most important votes in a generation.
If Parliament does reject no-deal Brexit, another vote would be automatically triggered for Thursday. This time the question put to lawmakers will be: Should Britain request a delay to Brexit?
It is much harder to predict how that vote would play out as both of the main party leaders have effectively lost control of their MPs and would not be able to enforce the party whip. Substantial numbers of politicians on both sides believe delaying Brexit would be an insult to the electorate who voted to quite the EU in 2016; while similarly large numbers believe no deal must be avoided at all costs. There is also a smaller group of MPs who are plotting to hold a second referendum and would therefore vote for as long a delay to Brexit as possible.
For once May captured the mood of the House of Commons late Tuesday night when she said: “These are unenviable choices. Thanks to the decision that the House has made this evening, they are choices that must now be faced.”
Whatever Britain wants to do next, with 17 days to go until its membership of the European Union expires, it’s time to make a decision.