British lawmakers on Wednesday took another step towards delaying Brexit, when Parliament voted to reject the U.K. leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement — just weeks before the country is scheduled to do exactly that.
The vote, on an amendment to reject a "no-deal" Brexit under any circumstance, passed twice — initially by just four votes – in chaotic scenes spanning 30 minutes in the chamber. The two quickfire defeats for the Conservative-led government come just a day after Parliament overwhelmingly voted down Prime Minister Theresa May's deal for a second time, only two weeks before the U.K. is due to leave the bloc on March 29.
The defeat is yet another blow for May, who has seen defeat after defeat for her approach to Brexit, plunging Britain into an even deeper political crisis — with no immediate end in sight. The amendment that passed changed the language of a government motion that May had announced a day earlier that would have expressed disapproval of 'no-deal Brexit" but the language in the so-called Spelman Amendment went a step further and rules it out entirely.
Wednesday's motion is entirely symbolic and does not change the situation on the ground that Britain will leave the E.U. on March 29 without a deal unless an extension to its departure is secured, or May's withdrawal agreement is approved by lawmakers. But May had promised that it will lead to a vote on Thursday, in which lawmakers will vote on a motion to request that Britain's depature be extended until June — but it is far from clear that the E.U. will grant such a request.
“The House has today provided a clear majority against leaving without a deal, however I will repeat what I have said before, these are about the choices this House faces," May told the Commons after the vote to howls of disapproval from opposition benches. "The legal default in U.K. and E.U. law remains that U.K. will leave without a deal unless something else is agreed."
"The onus is now on everyone of us in this House to find out what that is," she said, before angrily urging the House to "face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken."
In the absence of a delay or a withdrawal agreement, Britain is scheduled to leave the bloc without a deal and revert to World Trade Organization (WTO) terms. Business groups and pro-E.U. politicians, including some in May's government, have said that a "no deal" Brexit would be catastrophic, leading to chaos at ports and shortages across the country. Some pro-Brexit lawmakers have called that such fears are overblown and part of what they have dubbed "Project Fear."
But on Wednesday, May's opponents declared her to be responsible for Britain's political uncertainty and said that she had lost the ability to lead the country through the choppy waters ahead. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said after the vote that a Brexit delay was now "inevitable" and that "Parliament must now take control of the situation."
"Let us, as a House of Commons, work now to find a solution to deal with the crisis facing this country and the deep concerns that many people have for their livelihoods, their lives, their future, their jobs, their communities and their factories," he said.
Before the vote, he called on May to abandon her red lines for a deal “and face the reality of the situation she has got herself, this party, this parliament and this country into.”
May, her voice hoarse and weak as she apparently battled illness, was defiant, and accused Corbyn of voting “in a way that brings no-deal closer.”
“I may not have my own voice but I do understand the voice of the country,” she said. “People want to leave the E.U., they want to end free movement, they want to have our own trade policy, they want to make sure laws are made in this country and judged in our courts. That's what the deal delivers, that's what I will continue to work to deliver.”
Corbyn, a day earlier, said it was time for a general election, after declaring “the clock has been run out” on May.
May was also under intense pressure from her own ranks, particularly members of the fiercely pro-Brexit wing of her party who helped vote the deal down over concerns about the backstop — a safety net that would keep Britain in a customs union until a trade deal was agreed to so as to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Brexiteers have expressed concern that the lack of a unilateral exit mechanism could lead to Britain never actually leaving the E.U. or being forced to accept bad terms. May sought changes to the deal to assure jumpy MPs but it wasn’t enough to assuage Parliament on Tuesday, where her agreement was defeated 391-242.
May fought off a vote of no confidence in her leadership of the party in December, and in the government in January. But the latest rejection of her deal has seemingly refueled calls for her to stand down or call a general election.
“I think there is an issue that the Prime Minister is not capable of changing course, and that is catastrophic for the country and I think she should stand down,” Labour Party MP Liz Kendall said on BBC.
When asked about Kendall’s comments, Tory Party MP Steve Baker — who previously called for her to stand down — appeared to agree with Kendall’s assessment of May’s attitude but said that “given past events, I’d be well advised to say no more about it”
Pro-Remain Tory MP Nicky Morgan, meanwhile told Sky News ahead of the vote that: “If votes today go against her I do think it makes her position very, very difficult”
Even if the E.U agrees to a Brexit delay, it is unclear what would change in three months to resolve the impasse.
The alternatives are a general election, for May to step down voluntarily (she cannot be challenged by her own party until December) and be replaced by another prime minister who would offer a different approach, a no-deal Brexit or a second referendum — something that the Labour Party and other pro-E.U. parties have called for. Should the U.K. delay its departure from the E.U. for more than a few months, it would open up the prospect that Britain participates in the European Parliament elections in May.
But some Brexiteers brushed off the day's events and noted that despite the motion disapproving Britain leaving without a deal, as it stands, that is exactly what Britain is currently on track to do.
‘We live under a system of law, and a motion passed in Parliament does not override the law," Pro-Brexit Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told Sky. "The Withdrawal Act means we leave on March 29 under U.K. law and the Article 50 Act we means leave on March 29 under E.U. law”