Brexit endgame: Parliament votes down Theresa May’s Brexit deal

Pro-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, in London, Britain, January 15, 2019. REUTERS/John Sibley - RC1725ED56A0

On January 15, the British House of Commons finally voted on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The vote was postponed from mid-December, with little changing over the holidays as members of parliament (MP) overwhelmingly opposed the deal. With the March 29 deadline for Brexit looming, the way forward remains unclear.

What was the result of the vote?

As expected, MPs voted down May’s Brexit deal. The final tally of 432-202 gave her government the largest parliamentary defeat since World War I. (See Politico for graphics showing how members voted, including support from a few opposition MPs.)

What does Prime Minister May do next?

Under the terms of an amendment adopted last week, May must return to parliament on Monday—which she has pledged to do—and outline the government’s next steps. May has also promised to consult with senior MPs to discuss the changes required to secure parliamentary support, which will provide the basis for further consultations with the EU. There is currently no support in parliament for any form of deal, which makes a “no-deal Brexit” the default option. She could seek to win a second parliamentary vote on an amended deal.

What has the opposition said?

Immediately following the vote, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion of no-confidence in May’s government. This vote will occur on Wednesday, January 16.

A confidence vote requires a simple majority. If passed, the opposition has 14 days to form a new government and win its own confidence vote. If the parties fail, there will be new elections.

May is expected to win. Her Conservative party does not want a Corbyn government. In addition, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party—whose 10 MPs prop up her minority government on budget and confidence motions but are not bound by a policy platform—have pledged to support her. Last December, she won a no-confidence vote brought by her own party.

What has the EU said?

Thus far, the EU has remained in wait-and-see mode as politics unfold in London. Earlier this week, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk sent a letter in response to May’s correspondence that provided political assurances. They expressed willingness to begin trade discussions promptly and reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to agreeing on a future economic relationship by the end of the transition period in December 2020. They also restated that the Northern Ireland backstop is a temporary and emergency measure, only to be used in the absence of a future trade agreement. Yet they remained unwilling to renegotiate, provide an enforceable deadline for concluding a trade deal, or set an expiration date for the Northern Ireland backstop.

Will there be a second referendum?

To date, May has resisted calls for a second referendum. Corbyn, a long-time Eurosceptic, has also been reticent; he prefers a general election in the hopes of becoming prime minister and negotiating a “better” deal. If parliament forces the issue, the next question will be how the referendum question is phrased (e.g., options for May’s deal, another deal, or no Brexit).

Can Brexit be delayed?

The U.K. is rapidly running out of time before the March 29 deadline. Even if parliament had endorsed the deal, it would still need to adopt implementing legislation; the European Parliament also needs to ratify the deal.

Extension of Article 50, the treaty clause outlining how countries leave the EU, requires agreement from the other 27 EU member states. They have indicated openness to an extension if there are extenuating circumstances in the U.K., such as a second referendum or general elections. Such a technical extension would likely only last until July, when Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) meet for the first time after May elections. Beyond that, complicated questions arise about the role of British MEPs and whether the U.K. intends to contribute financially to new EU programs.

The U.K. government, per a ruling by the European Court of Justice last November, could unilaterally revoke Article 50 if it decides not to proceed with Brexit.