The House of Commons voted on Thursday by 303 to 258 against a motion endorsing the prime minister’s approach to resolving the Brexit deadlock, after a revolt from Euroskeptics in her Conservative Party. The defeat effectively strips May of her political mandate to demand changes to the withdrawal agreement in Brussels, and suggests she has little chance of fending off an attempt by Parliament to take control of the process on Feb. 27.
“Tonight’s vote shows there is no majority for the prime minister’s course of action,” opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn said after the result was announced. “She cannot keep on just running down the clock and hoping that something will turn up.”
While the prime minister’s office said in a statement her plan remains unchanged, she has until the end of the month to convince moderate members of her Conservative Party that she is capable of getting a deal through parliament before Britain crashes out of the European Union. Thursday showed she can’t even persuade her party to support her on a symbolic motion. That has left MPs who fear a no-deal Brexit wondering if they need to take the decision out of her hands.
There’s growing support for a cross-party plan to force May to take no-deal off the table. In a vote on Feb. 27 these MPs will begin the process of trying to pass a bill that would require May to seek an extension to Brexit talks if there’s no deal by March 13.
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29 but Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the terms for the split that May negotiated in a vote last month. That means the U.K. is on course to fall out of the bloc of 28 countries without an agreement, potentially causing major damage to the economy, unless one side backs down.
In the month since May lost that vote, she’s been trying to persuade the EU to make legally binding changes to the most contentious part of the withdrawal agreement — the so-called backstop guarantee for the Irish border.
“The government will continue to pursue this with the EU to ensure we leave on time on March 29,” May’s office said in an emailed statement.
But the British premier has hardly any room to maneuver. Pro-Brexit Tories want the backstop to be stripped out of the divorce deal, while EU leaders say they won’t change the text.
May herself was not in the Commons to hear the result on Thursday. But after she failed to persuade the pro-Brexit caucus of her Tory party to back her approach, defeat was all-but inevitable.
Thursday’s vote is not binding on the government, but the motion was an attempt by May to buy herself more time to secure concessions from the EU. Her aides fear defeat will undermine her negotiations.
Earlier on Thursday, May’s office urged members of Parliament to back her motion and send “another clear message” to Brussels that Britain needs changes to be made to the deal.
Instead, the message Parliament sent was one of confusion. The pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservative politicians refused to vote for May’s motion and abstained in protest.
That’s because the Commons is split between those politicians who want to leave the EU in a clean split — even if it means a no-deal divorce — and others who would rather stay close to the bloc, and even hope to stop Brexit.
The vote left the Conservatives deeply divided. While the ERG argued that it showed the only way for May to get a deal through Parliament was to change the backstop, some of their colleagues accused them of simply wanting to undermine May at every point and force a no-deal Brexit. In the lobbies of the House of Commons there was at least one furious argument between people who are theoretically party allies.
“Another day of failed politics, another day closer to no deal chaos,” Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the U.K.’s business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry, said on Twitter. “Politicians must find a deal that protects our economy. Failure would be unforgivable.”
Before voting began, May held a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the latest developments as the clock ticks down to exit day on March 29.
According to the prime minister’s spokeswoman Alison Donnelly, May also spoke to the leaders of Austria, Portugal and Sweden and all agreed they want the U.K. to leave the EU with a deal. DM