The Brexit Plan Just Failed Again in Parliament: What Happened, and What’s Next? – The New York Times
• Britain’s Parliament on Tuesday soundly defeated Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to exit the European Union, a 391 to 242 vote that is likely to delay Brexit and could derail it entirely. It is a devastating blow to Mrs. May that threatens her hold on power.
• The vote left the nation with no obvious way forward, just 17 days before the deadline for leaving the European Union. Parliament is sharply divided on when, how and even whether to proceed with Brexit, and whether to call an election or a second referendum.
Confusion and uncertainty deepen
Parliament’s rebuke to Prime Minister Theresa May, on the issue that has dominated British politics for three years, casts the nation’s political and economic future into confusion with just 17 days left until its scheduled exit from the European Union.
The vote is sure to intensify calls for her to either step down, call a general election, or both. Plenty of Conservative lawmakers would like to take her place as party leader and prime minister, but there is no obvious front-runner, and the outcome of a general election is just as unclear.
Mrs. May’s plan, painstakingly negotiated with the European Union, would have set the terms for Britain’s scheduled exit on March 29.
Unless Parliament takes some other action, Britain will leave the bloc on that date without a deal in place, which Brexit hardliners insist would be fine, but which most lawmakers and economists say would be disastrous.
Parliament is set to vote Wednesday on whether to reject the prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit, and to vote Thursday on whether to seek a postponement of the March 29 deadline.
The bloc would have to agree to a postponement, which appears likely, but the duration of such a delay is uncertain.
“Let me be clear,” Mrs. May said after the defeat. “Voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems we face. The E.U. will want to know what use we will make of such an extension.”
Tuesday’s vote was Parliament’s second rejection of the plan, and there was talk of a third vote, even closer to the deadline.
What happens now that Parliament has rejected the deal again?
Parliament’s rejection of Mrs. May’s deal shifts the focus to a vote scheduled for Wednesday on whether to oppose leaving without a deal.
After Tuesday’s vote, the prime minister said she would not try to dictate to her party’s members how to vote on Wednesday.
“This will be a free vote on this side of the house,” she said.
A vote against a no-deal Brexit would most likely require pushing back the originally scheduled departure date of March 29, and Parliament is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to seek a postponement.
Some hard-line Brexiteers insist that they would welcome a no-deal split as a clean and complete break from the European Union. But it is clear that most members of Parliament see it as more akin to driving over a cliff.
Formal opposition in Parliament to a no-deal departure would ratchet up pressure on the government to seek a postponement of the deadline, something that would be contingent on an agreement between Mrs. May’s government and the European Union.
Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator, reiterated its position that delay or no delay, the European Union was not prepared to make more concessions. “The E.U. has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line,” he wrote on Twitter.
The British government could evade the March 29 deadline unilaterally, but only by revoking its decision to leave the European Union, a step that Mrs. May has insisted she will not take. But postponing or revoking Britain’s departure would give new hope to those who want to call a second referendum.
The 2016 referendum won with 52 percent of the vote, but Brexit opponents hope that circumstances have changed enough to reverse the result.
Attorney general says little has changed, a setback for May
Prime Minister Theresa May’s prospects of winning the crucial vote were dealt a significant blow Tuesday morning when the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, said that the extra assurances she had negotiated with European leaders did not fundamentally change the legal position.
Mr. Cox said the concessions did “reduce the risk” of Britain’s being trapped in the backstop — an insurance policy to ensure there is no hard Irish border, and a main issue for opponents of Mrs. May’s deal.
[What is the Irish “backstop”? Read our full explanation here.]
But Mr. Cox said that the assurances did not alter Britain’s rights and obligations. Were there to be a dispute, he wrote, the country would have “no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
Mr. Cox’s opinion was seen as influential for pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers who had been considering voting for the deal.
On Tuesday morning, Mrs. May led a meeting of the cabinet and told her senior ministers that passing the vote would allow the country to move on to a brighter future, while the alternative would be uncertainty with no guarantee of what happens next. “Let’s get this done,” Mrs. May said, in comments released by her office.
Mrs. May has delayed the withdrawal vote time and again in hopes that the looming deadline would force critics on both sides to give in.
But she faced a very steep climb: In January, Parliament rejected her deal by a vote of 432 to 202. On Tuesday, it became clear that she had not changed nearly enough minds to win.
Making the case, even as her voice gives out
Her voice hoarse and her political career hanging by a thread, Prime Minister Theresa May stood up in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon and tried to narrow the choice before lawmakers: Vote for my deal, she said, or Britain might very well end up staying in the European Union.
“If this vote is not passed tonight, if this deal is not passed,” Mrs. May said, “then Brexit could be lost.”
Mrs. May was alluding to the possibility that, if Parliament were to reject her deal on Tuesday night, lawmakers could delay Britain’s departure from the European Union, and could later get behind a softer deal or a second referendum that could reject Brexit altogether.
The prime minister, who hoped the threat of those outcomes would persuade hard-line Brexit supporters to back her deal, argued that the tweaks she had secured from the European Union on Monday had strengthened Britain’s hand and given it more power over the backstop arrangement that would temporarily bind it to European trading rules.
But the empty green benches behind her at the start of her speech were just one sign of the thin support she enjoys among backbench Conservative members of Parliament.
Legal experts are skeptical
Even before the attorney general had issued his analysis, other legal experts had expressed similar opinions.
Apparently, the most that can be said for the changes is that they reinforce the notion that Britain can opt out of European trading rules if officials in Brussels are found to be negotiating in bad faith.
“In the real world,” wrote Michael Dougan, a professor of European law at the University of Liverpool, “such a prospect should be considered almost entirely theoretical, if not altogether fanciful.”
Three experts in European and international law, commissioned by Brexit opponents to consider Mrs. May’s last-minute tweaks, wrote in an 11-page opinion, “The backstop will endure indefinitely, unless and until superseded by another agreement, save in the extreme and unlikely event that in future negotiations the E.U. acts in bad faith in rejecting the U.K.’s demands.”
New figures show an economy held back by uncertainty
Government figures published on Tuesday showed very weak economic growth in Britain, just 0.2 percent in the three-month period that ended in January.
“Growth remained weak with falls in manufacture of metal products, cars and construction repair work all dampening growth,” Rob Kent-Smith, the leader of the team that compiled the report, said in a statement.
Investment in auto manufacturing and other sectors has taken a hit as the country has stumbled toward Brexit. Manufacturers have pleaded with the government for some certainty so they can plan ahead, but many have opted to take their business elsewhere.
Joshua Hardie, the deputy director general at the Confederation of British Industry, described a no-deal Brexit as a “threat that is crippling business in sectors every day,” and encouraged lawmakers to vote for the deal.
The value of the pound sagged after Mr. Cox’s advice on the backstop, with currency traders fearing that his comments had hurt the deal’s chances of passing.
With the defeat of the deal, financial analysts said, the outlook for the pound, and the British economy as a whole, depended heavily on what follows. If Mrs. May resigns or calls an early election, that would inject still more uncertainty into the equation, making for a bumpy ride for Britain.
What is the Irish “backstop”?
If you don’t understand the plan for the Irish border, you’re not alone.
Confusing in the best of times and loudly debated almost all the time, the Irish backstop is shorthand for the question of how to deal with the border between Ireland, a European Union member country, and Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, once Britain leaves the European Union.
The backstop would be a way to avoid building a physical barrier with checkpoints for goods — the kind of barrier that the European Union has done away with inside the bloc. The backstop provision of Mrs. May’s Brexit plan says that so long as there is no long-term trade pact, Britain would remain in the European customs union and Northern Ireland would be bound by many of its rules.
Britain could therefore remain tied to the European Union indefinitely without having a voice in shaping its rules — a nightmare scenario for hard-line supporters of Brexit. Mrs. May could cut a deal with the opposition Labour Party for a plan that keeps Britain closer to the bloc, but doing so would put her at risk of alienating her Conservative allies.
A call for a general election
Charles Walker, a senior Conservative lawmaker and member of the influential 1922 committee, demanded on Tuesday that Mrs. May call a general election if she loses the vote on her Brexit deal.
“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 told BBC Radio 4’s World at One program. “It is not sustainable, the current situation in Parliament.”
The 1922 Committee is a group of Conservative lawmakers who meet weekly to discuss party matters. They are responsible for keeping the leadership informed of the party’s mood.
The committee would manage any leadership ballot, although Mrs. May is largely immune from such an effort to remove her for the next 10 months since a party no-confidence vote in December failed.
A linchpin of the deal
At the center of the Brexit issue is the Democratic Unionist Party, a small group of socially conservative, pro-withdrawal lawmakers from Northern Ireland who wield outsize influence because they prop up Prime Minister Theresa May’s government.
The backstop infuriates them not so much because it might trap Britain in the regulatory orbit of Europe, but rather because it might bind Northern Ireland to more European trading rules than it does other parts of the United Kingdom.
That effectively means trade barriers in the Irish Sea, splitting Northern Ireland ever so slightly from the rest of the United Kingdom. That’s unacceptable to unionists, for whom the link to Britain is sacred. The D.U.P. would rather kill the backstop and risk a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The 10 D.U.P. lawmakers were coy early Tuesday about the tweaks that Mrs. May had obtained. But after Britain’s top lawyer said the new language didn’t substantially change the backstop arrangement, the government’s slim hopes of winning them over quickly deflated.
The Belfast Telegraph reported that the D.U.P. saw the legal advice as “not exactly a ringing endorsement.” Other news outlets said D.U.P. officials saw no way that they could support the deal.
Conservatives balk at the proposal
A faction of pro-Brexit lawmakers within the governing Conservative Party opposed Mrs. May’s deal after a group of its lawyers officially recommended on Tuesday that the lawmakers should not vote for it.
The prime minister needed to win over members of the faction, known as the European Research Group, to have any chance of getting her deal through Parliament.
The group of lawyers published its assessment of the extra assurances that Mrs. May had secured from European Union leaders, saying that the agreement still did not give Britain the power to extract itself from European trading rules that it would be forced to accept as part of the backstop.
“They do not provide any exit mechanism from the protocol which is under the U.K.’s control,” the assessment found.
Unrest in the Labour Party
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, opposed Mrs. May’s deal but otherwise maintained his ambivalence over Brexit as part of his strategy to buy time and come out ahead, observers said.
Mr. Corbyn has said that he does not like the plan put before the British Parliament while “being imprecise over what exactly is Labour’s dream deal, other than that he wants a closer alliance with the customs union and single market,” said Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool.
On the floor of Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Corbyn dismissed the assurances Mrs. May had received from the European Union as “waffle,” and said that while the prime minister had laid out a number of Brexit goals, “she hasn’t met any of those objectives.”
“The Prime Minister’s negotiations have failed,” he wrote on Twitter. “Last night’s agreement with the European Commission does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May promised Parliament.”
[Read about how Mr. Corbyn’s efforts to play both sides of the Brexit debate are tearing his party apart.]
Mr. Corbyn’s ambivalence has angered the party’s primary constituencies: Although a majority of Labour voters overall wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, Brexit supporters in rural areas and working communities make up about a third of the party’s electorate.
Mr. Corbyn has consistently rejected a “Tory Brexit,” and recently said he would support a second referendum — a bid to stop a rebellion among Labour lawmakers in Parliament. But that proposal has angered many Leave voters — especially those who feel left behind by a party they believed had championed them.
“Corbyn can’t ride both horses forever but he’s already ridden for quite a long distance, and there is a certain logic to it,” Professor Tonge said.
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