Britain’s political standoff over Brexit escalated further, with even Theresa May’s announcement that she’ll quit as prime minister doing nothing to move closer to a resolution.
It leaves the country entering another critical 48 hours after Parliament signaled it’s more willing to back a softer departure from the European Union or even another referendum than the deal struck by May after two years of negotiations. But those options also don’t command majority support.
The U.K. has two weeks to go to the EU with a plan for its next steps or face the prospect of leaving without a deal, something Parliament also opposes. The likeliest outcome is that May will ask for a longer delay to Brexit, but she will have to convince European leaders that Britain is on a path to solving its apparently intractable problems.
Hours after May promised her Conservative members of Parliament on Wednesday that she’d step down if they back her Brexit deal, she still looked short of having the numbers needed to win. It’s already been overwhelmingly defeated twice.
Meanwhile, votes in the House of Commons intended to break the deadlock by finding a consensus also saw every proposal rejected. The pound fell.
May must decide on Thursday if she is going to bring her deal back for another vote and meet the EU’s Friday deadline for getting it passed. The government declared that it was still the only option in play. Yet it too appears to be doomed despite the capitulation of some Brexit hard liners.
Liz Truss, a member of Theresa May’s cabinet, told ITV television that Wednesday’s votes show there are no other “serious options” than the one already negotiated with the EU, and that has “focused minds.”
“There has been a significant shift now of people recognizing the reality of the options,” she said. “What we have seen today is Parliament does not have an option apart from the prime minister’s deal that is really a viable option for the future.”
Indeed, May’s desperate gamble seemed at first to be working, as several pro-Brexit Conservatives — including Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith — told colleagues they would support her divorce agreement, according to people familiar with the matter.
But the Democratic Unionist Party, the small Northern Ireland group that props up May’s minority government, issued a statement saying it will oppose the deal if it’s put to another vote in Parliament. It’s almost impossible for May to get it through without them.
Adding to her woes, influential Brexit cheerleader Jacob Rees-Mogg, who earlier in the week appeared to be wavering towards supporting her deal, told ITV he’d be guided by how the DUP votes. Even if her deal fails, she’s promised her colleagues she will resign.
“I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party,” May told a packed meeting of Conservative MPs inside one of Parliament’s oak-paneled rooms. “I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty — to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit.”
According to people in the room, an emotional May made her pledge in an attempt to persuade Tories to vote for her agreement before it’s too late. The EU has set Britain a deadline of Friday to ratify the divorce agreement, so the country can then leave the bloc on the later-than-planned date of May 22.
If May can’t get her deal through a vote in the House of Commons by Friday, the U.K. will be forced to choose between a potentially long delay to its departure — including an unpalatable participation in European elections — and falling out of the EU without a deal on April 12.
A no-deal Brexit threatens the kind of economic crash that would hit the pound, disrupt trade and trigger a major slump in house prices, according to official analysis. That suggests the most likely outcome would be a long extension to the negotiations, potentially lasting more than a year, during which time pro-Brexit campaigners increasingly fear their dream of leaving the EU could be brought to a halt.
After Parliament seized control of proceedings from the government to hold a series of votes on different Brexit Plan B models, the result was one that many had predicted: the politicians rejected all options.
The closest any of them came to winning a majority was a proposal to keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU, which lost 272 votes to 264. A plan to submit any Brexit deal to a confirmatory referendum secured the most support — 268 MPs voted for it.
Both of these proposals secured more support than the 242 lawmakers who voted for May’s deal the last time around. But in a further complication, both were rejected by huge majorities in the Conservative Party. Only two options were supported by a majority of Tories. The most popular one was to leave without a deal.
The votes suggested that unless May can get her deal through, any other route to a parliamentary majority will be opposed by a majority of Conservative MPs, making it unacceptable to a Tory prime minister.
It also suggests that the race to succeed May will see candidates trimming for a harder Brexit in order to win Tory votes. The winner will then have to find a way to square that with a Parliament that wants a softer departure.
The House of Commons is slated to hold another round of voting on Plan B options, to narrow the choices down further. But in the long term, asking voters to force a change, either through another referendum or another election, looks an increasingly likely course.