British Prime Minister Theresa May‘s vote on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement failed to garner enough support in the Parliament as May saw her proposal defeated by a margin that was far larger, the widest in nearly a century, as the government lost the vote by 202 to 432, including the vote of 118 Conservative MPs.
Having suffered a crushing defeat, May said the Parliament’s rejection says little about what needs to happen in the immediate future. She will now try to gain further assurances from the EU if she survives a no-confidence vote tabled by the leader of the opposition, the leftist leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn.
The immediate reaction of Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission leaves little space for a Withdrawal Agreement without a backstop. Within an hour from the vote in the House of Commons, Juncker made clear that “the risk of a disorderly withdrawal from the United Kingdom has increased with this evening’s vote.”
Juncker urged the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible as “Time is almost up.”
Losing the argument
May’s defeat appeared to be a fait accompli by late Tuesday afternoon. The Prime Minister had called on parliamentarians to re-examine the agreement, warning that this was their last chance to choose between her deal, the default legal position of a so-called ‘no deal’, or no Brexit at all. A statement to the same effect was echoed by ardent Brexiteer, Michael Gove, in an interview with BBC4 on January 15. He argued that a ‘no’ vote would play into the hands of those wishing to stop Brexit.
The leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, confirmed that she was not satisfied that the agreement’s most important and by far most contentious issue – the backstop agreement on the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland in the UK – would not drive a wedge between Belfast and the European Union.
All eyes were on the DUP, as the Irish backstop is one of the main reasons cited by Conservative backbenchers who want to reject the deal with Brussels.
The written assurances extended by the European Commission on January 14 did little to appease concerns about a backstop safeguard which could see Northern Ireland remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market just as the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
May argued that there were assurances that such a transition would be for “the shortest possible period.”
Meanwhile, former Brexit Secretary Dominik Raab and the leader of the European Reform Group, Jacob Rees Mogg, were calling on MPs to deflect the EU’s position, reject the Withdrawal Agreement, and present the EU with the choice of granting the UK a transition period in exchange for £39 billion, or leave without any settlement.
Over the last week, most journalists have repeatedly asked MPs and government ministers whether May needs to resign if she loses the vote over the Withdrawal Agreement. On Tuesday, May’s spokesman in the House of Commons made clear that she will continue to serve as prime minister and has no intention of stepping down as she has vowed to “deliver on the will of the British people by taking the country out of the EU.”
There was little doubt that Labour’s leader Corbyn would submit a no-confidence vote as soon as the bill fails. However, voting against the Withdrawal Agreement and against the May government are two different things.
The DUP knows that Corbyn has openly advocated a border poll and could give Northern Ireland a so-called border poll as envisaged by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in the North.
A weak Conservative government dependent on the DUP is the best scenario for the party. As for Conservative backbenchers, going to the polls could trigger a victory for the Labour Party that would be hard to manage.
Meanwhile, there is no clear majority for any neat resolution in the House of Commons. The UK parliament has 47 working days before leaving the EU without an agreement on March 29, the legal default position which many Conservative Party MPs welcome as a clean break.
What is certain is that the parliament passed a bill last week that obliges May to come up with a “Plan B” about what happens next. What is likely is that May will leave for Brussels to ask, yet again, for new clarifications, concessions, or other means to appease her backbenchers.
Whatever she comes back with will require MPs to cross partisan lines. That looks hard to achieve. What is more likely is that May will call for an extension of the Article 50 divorce process which requires the unanimous consent of the other 27 members. That seems to be on offer if requested, but this option is hugely complicated by the European elections scheduled for May in which the UK will not participate.
Most analysts agree that without a clear majority for any solution, a hard Brexit is now a distinct possibility because neither the British government nor the opposition has a consolidated view on what needs to happen.