Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY
Three years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, lawmakers have failed to agree on how to do it. Parliament overwhelmingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s revised Brexit deal on Tuesday in a vote of 391-242 – a loss of 149 ballots. The defeat for May and her government was total.
Last-minute negotiations with the EU were not enough to secure the support of hardliners in the prime minister’s own Conservative Party.
With her vision for Brexit defeated for a second time, Parliament will now vote Wednesday on whether to leave the EU on schedule, on March 29, without a deal – a scenario that could create economic chaos for Britain and, to lesser degree, Europe.
If lawmakers want to keep trying for a managed withdrawal, as is most likely, they will vote Thursday on whether to request a delay from EU leaders, who suggested they would grant an extension, but have warned that their patience is not infinite.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, May told Parliament that she had secured the “legally binding” assurances they sought that would guarantee Britain would not be “indefinitely” tied to EU rules and regulations, even if the sides cannot agree in the future on how else to keep the border on the island of Ireland free and open.
She said this was a good deal for Britain that honored the 2016 Brexit referendum: it took back control of borders, immigration, laws and money – and would allow the country to seek new trade deals around the world, including with the United States.
“If this deal is not passed tonight, Brexit might be lost,” May warned lawmakers in the House of Commons, her voice croaking with fatigue.
But the opinion from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was potentially devastating.
In answers to questions in Parliament, Cox said May’s tweaked deal does “reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained within the protocol’s provisions,” but he warned that “the legal risk remains unchanged.” Cox said Britain would have “no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement” with the Europeans.
Lawmakers who favor a hard-line Brexit, one that frees Britain completely from EU regulations, suggested that the Cox opinion showed the deal had not changed enough.
At a Brexit Select Committee hearing, John Whittingdale, a Conservative lawmaker, said that Cox’s advice “reads very much as if nothing actually has changed.”
Whittingdale added that Cox’s conclusion was “pretty terminal.”
The European Research Group (ERG), a group of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, said the verdict of their so-called “Star Chamber” of lawyers was that the new changes failed to offer ironclad guarantees that Britain would remain in control.
Conservative lawmaker Bill Cash, a member of the ERG, said: “In the light of our own legal analysis and others we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today.”
Many lawmakers who support a hard Brexit voted against May’s deal. But others feared that if they didn’t back May now, they could see Brexit lost – first to delay, then to a second referendum.
Another key group that could influence whether May’s deal passes or fails Tuesday is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the small Northern Irish party that props up the Conservative government.
As May was addressing Parliament, DUP leader Arlene Foster released a statement saying her party could not support the prime minister’s Brexit deal, because “sufficient progress has not been achieved at this time.”
Further depressing chances that the deal will pass, the opposition Labour party advised its members to vote no.
“She brought back the exact same deal we rejected and expects us to vote for it,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who called May’s new language “a case study in weasel words and obfuscation.”
Corybn said, “That’s why this House will reject this deal today.”
One of the main proponents for Brexit during the 2016 referendum, Nigel Farage, tweeted his reaction to May’s new deal: “This is all words and twisted meanings. Nothing has changed. Reject. Reject. Reject.”
May’s Brexit deal, negotiated over two years with the EU, was originally rejected by Parliament in January by an overwhelming vote of 432 to 202. Since then, she has pressed for adjustments that might induce support from hard-line Brexiteers in her Conservative Party.
This deal is only about the terms of departure and does not include what the future relationship between Britain and the EU will look like. It sets out the $50 billion divorce settlement that Britain will pay; it allows for a two-year transition period, when things will remain essentially as they are now in terms of trade, migration, security and travel; and it seeks a guarantee to preserve the free and open border on the island of Ireland.
It is that guarantee – the Irish backstop – that is at the heart of the impasse. Many British lawmakers fear that it would limit their country’s sovereignty, requiring them to continue to abide by European rules and regulations on customs and trade forever, without having any say. Some have hoped for a sunset clause, or a provision allowing Britain to unilaterally terminate the backstop.
EU leaders on Monday offered fresh pledges that they would seek all possible ways to avoid invoking the politically toxic plan. They wanted to give May a fig leaf, allowing her to say she had received concessions and win over wavering British lawmakers ahead of Tuesday’s vote. But the assurances were framed as the EU’s final offer.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters after meeting with May in Strasbourg: “There will be no new negotiations. It is this.”
British lawmakers are now expected to vote Wednesday on whether to allow Britain to leave the EU without a deal, a scenario that many hard-line Brexiteers embrace, but one that others warn could send shock waves through the British and European economies.
Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and a leading Brexiteer, argued in favor of a no-deal Brexit on Tuesday. While acknowledging “that is in the short term the more difficult road,” he said, “In the end it’s the only safe route out of the abyss and the only safe path to self-respect.”
Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, warned that members of Parliament seemed to be under “a dangerous illusion” that Britain might secure a transition period, and insulate itself from the shock of crashing out, even after rejecting May’s withdrawal agreement. “No withdrawal agreement means no transition,” Barnier tweeted.
If the lawmakers decide they still want to try for a managed withdrawal, they’re expected to vote Thursday on whether to postpone Brexit. Delaying Britain’s departure would require permission from EU leaders.
May said earlier that if such a delay were necessary, it would be granted only once, and that it shouldn’t go beyond the end of June.
Anti-Brexit lawmakers hope that if Britain’s departure is delayed, momentum will build for a second referendum – a do-over – to ask voters whether they really want to leave.
Although Labour has endorsed a second referendum, there does not appear to be majority support for it in Parliament.
“There isn’t actually evidence that the British people have changed their minds,” May said to lawmakers on Tuesday. “And where would it end? So what? So you have another referendum, and there’s a different result, and then everybody says, well, let’s actually have a third one.”
Speculation was rife about what would happen to May if her deal was rejected.
Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, predicted Parliament would take greater control of the Brexit process and push for a softer Brexit. That could split the Conservative Party and produce a renewed attempt to oust May from Downing Street, said Grant. “In such circumstances it’s possible that the right wing of her party would try and bring her down in the hope of installing a different Tory leader,” he said.
Charles Walker, a Conservative politician, told the BBC that if May’s new deal was rejected, then a general election would soon follow.
“If it doesn’t go through tonight, as sure as night follows day, there will be a general election within a matter of days or weeks,” he said.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · William Booth, Karla Adam