Posted on: The Washington Post | January 16th, 2019
With just 73 days to go until Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union, lawmakers voted down — by 432 to 202 — the withdrawal deal that had been painstakingly negotiated between Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Union. May has until Monday to come back to Parliament with a Plan B. But opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately called for a no-confidence vote.
Prime Minister Theresa May stood almost alone on Tuesday, as many in her own party prepared to abandon their leader and reject her unloved Brexit deal — leaving Britain’s future relationship with the European Union unclear.
Summing up the five days of debate over the Brexit deal in Parliament, May said Tuesday evening, “This is a historic decision that will set the future of this country for generations.”
As the members in the chamber hooted and jeered, the speaker gaveled the members to quiet, complaining of the “noisy and unseemly atmosphere.”
“The House must calm itself. Zen! Calm! Patience!” John Bercow shouted.
May told Parliament that the choice was plain: support her imperfect, but practical, compromise deal — and the only one that Europe will abide, she stressed — or face the cliff edge of no-deal Brexit.
May said that everyone who thought they could go to Brussels and get a better deal was deluding themselves.
With Tory vote-counters predicting a humiliating defeat in a momentous vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, historians were searching the past for comparisons.
Scholars had to go as far back as the 19th century to find a comparable party split and parliamentary defeat — to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s support for Irish home rule in 1886, which cut the Liberal Party in two.
“The events in Parliament today are really quite remarkable,” said Cambridge University political historian Luke Blaxill. “This doesn’t happen.” Meaning, usually British parties fight with one another in Parliament — but members don’t tear their own parties apart.
Outside Parliament on Tuesday, the scene was raucous as thousands of protesters on both sides, many in costumes, gathered to shout at each other — illustrating how unsettled and divisive Brexit remains more than two years after voters opted in a 2016 June referendum to leave the European Union. It was the largest balloting in British history.
Brexiteers banged drums and rang a “liberty” bell, while pro-E.U. demonstrators handed out “Bollocks to Brexit” stickers in Parliament Square beside two huge video screens set up for the live broadcast of the final speeches and the vote.
Jeff Wyatt, 54, a pro-Brexit voter, held aloft a placard that accused May of treason. Another man in the crowd suggested that the prime minister should face the executioner’s ax.
“For the first time in the history of my country, we’ve got Parliament against the people,” Wyatt said, gesturing at the Palace of Westminster.
Monika Wolf, 57, was clutching an E.U. flag and a Union Jack. She moved to Britain from Germany in 1981, and studied and raised her children here. In an ideal world, she said, Brexit would be stopped. Failing that, after the vote, she hoped to see “more statesmanship from the big parties — they both talk about bringing the country together, but so far they haven’t done anything at all to make that happen.”
Over the past weeks, with growing fervor, May has warned Conservative Party members of Parliament that they gambled all if they voted down her half-in, half-out compromise plan.
The British leader argued that rejection of her plan could bring about a fraught “no-deal” Brexit, loaded with financial risk. Or worse, she warned, opponents of Brexit could succeed in their drive to call for a second referendum on whether to remain in or leave the continental trading bloc.
The prime minister suggested that Brexit supporters might even lose that second vote and be saddled with a bitterly divided nation and the status quo.
“If we don’t vote for this agreement, then we risk playing into the hands of those who do not want Brexit to go ahead,” Environment Secretary Michael Gove told BBC Radio on Tuesday.
But frustration and anger over how May has handled the long, slow negotiations with Brussels has been mounting.
Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, spoke for many when she told the BBC, “Brexit is a complete cluster shambles.”
British political reporters estimated that as many as 100 Conservative members of Parliament might vote against May’s deal, joining the opposition Labour Party and others, including Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which helps prop up May’s minority government but hates her Brexit deal.
Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote that it appeared May was hurtling toward “the most shattering rejection of any prime minister in modern times.”
He wondered, “Will it be 200 or only 100? Might Theresa May surprise us all and lose by a mere 50 or 60 votes? It is a measure of the looking glass world of British politics that a crushing reverse on the most important piece of legislation the prime minister will ever introduce is discussed as a bump in the road rather than as the administration-ending loss it should be.”
May almost pleaded with her fellow Tories on Monday to take “a second look” at her plan. “It is not perfect,” she said, “But when the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this House and ask, ‘Did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the E.U., did we safeguard our economy, security or union, or did we let the British people down?’ ”
What happens next?
If May’s deal is rejected by Parliament, she has until Monday to return to the chamber with her “Plan B.” Her office has been tight-lipped about what that might be.
Her supporters say she will not resign, even in the face of a crushing defeat. They suggest instead that May might return to Brussels, to seek new concessions over the controversial provisions about the Irish border — or even attempt to reopen talks. It is also possible that she might seek negotiations among all parties in Parliament to see what kind of deal, if any, they could agree upon.
At the same time, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure to immediately call for a “no confidence” vote against May. It is likely that he would lose that vote — as Tories will not want to see May chucked and a general election called.
While all this plays out, proponents pushing for a second referendum to break the logjam will continue their efforts.
Rob Ford, a professor of politics at Manchester University, stressed that these were strange times. “Normally, if you were looking at a defeat of 50-plus votes on the number-one item on the government’s agenda, then that would be it. Game over. The prime minister would be gone and the government would probably fall immediately. But that’s clearly not going to happen,” Ford said.
“What Theresa May does now will become less and less relevant to what outcome we get. The key thing to be watching is what Parliament does next and what Labour does next,” he said.
In Brussels, heads were shaking in wonderment at the political chaos enveloping Westminster, and concern continued to grow about the deadlock.
E.U. diplomats who work on Brexit negotiations warned that they had nothing up their sleeve that could fundamentally shift the debate in Britain if the vote fails. And they said that May has yet to present them with a plan that she can guarantee would pass muster in her own parliament, leaving them puzzled about what precisely Britain wants more than two years into the process and whether they could offer anything to ease the deal over the finish line.
Although E.U. policymakers have said there would probably be some flexibility about the March 29 deadline for Britain’s exit from the E.U., any extension would have to be approved by leaders of all 27 remaining nations in the bloc, and there is little appetite to do so if it would do little to resolve the debate in Britain. Many capitals are bracing for a chaotic British exit and shifting their energies toward preparations to limit the damage.
Leaders said Tuesday that they would be happy to keep talking with May but that no radical changes were on offer.
“I do not think that there are any new solutions being put on the table that have nothing to do with what has already been negotiated and agreed,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters at a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
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