British Prime Minister Theresa May was handed a historic and humiliating defeat Tuesday when parliamentarians rejected her proposal to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. Mass defections from her own party have left May scrambling to come up with an alternative plan with 10 weeks until the scheduled departure date of March 29. May has no good options; a delay in withdrawal is possible, but so too is a second referendum — or the catastrophe that is a “no-deal Brexit.”
May’s government spent two years negotiating the terms of withdrawal — working out the framework for future relations with the EU is the next assignment — squeezed by Brexit supporters’ demands for maximum benefits from the EU while reasserting British sovereignty over other policies and the EU’s recognition that such a deal would spell the end of the union as other governments sought similar arrangements. The result was a 585-page document that made almost no one happy.
The depth of that disaffection was quickly apparent, forcing May to postpone the first parliamentary vote on the agreement originally scheduled for December. The delay was intended to give the government time to make its case for the deal. It failed.
This week’s vote was a crushing defeat for May, with 432 members of Parliament voting against the proposal and just 202 backing it. Historians note it was the worst defeat for a government since the Victorian age when Prime Minister William Gladstone eviscerated his Liberal Party by supporting Irish home rule in 1886. Rejectionists crossed the political spectrum, with 118 Conservative Party MPs voting against the agreement; three Labour MPs supported it.
The next order of business for May is a vote of no confidence put forward by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader. May faced a similar vote in December, although that vote was put forward by her own party. She survived that challenge and is almost certain to do so again. May retains the support of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, which makes her minority government possible. While her own party is unhappy with her Brexit deal, they are not prepared to withdraw support from her and risk a general election, one that Labour would likely win; the faction of hard-core Brexit supporters within the Tory party has said it would stick with the prime minister.
If she prevails in that ballot, May has said she will go back to Parliament and engage in cross-party talks to find what sort of deal could win majority support. Unfortunately, there is no indication that any proposal would gather sufficient backing. Members across the political spectrum have called for a second referendum on Brexit, anticipating that public opinion has shifted and Brexit will be defeated. May has said, however, that she will not call a second vote. Meanwhile, hard-core Brexit supporters relish the failure of May’s plan, believing that it increases her leverage in talks with Brussels to strike a new deal.
That confidence should be undercut by the insistence of European officials that no better deal is possible. While shocked by the scale of May’s defeat, there is no indication that Brussels is prepared to be more flexible. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker responded to the vote by noting that “while we do not want this to happen, the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared.” French President Emmanuel Macron conceded that “maybe we’ll make improvements on one or two things,” but he added that “we’ve reached the maximum of what we could do with the deal, and we won’t, just to solve Britain’s domestic political issues, stop defending European interests.”
The International Monetary Fund has estimated that the no-deal scenario could cost the U.K. as much as 8 percent of GDP as the chaos ripples through the economy. Companies and individual citizens are reportedly already beginning to stockpile goods in anticipation of a no-deal Brexit that could result in significant shortages of materials and goods. Other economists have forecast an immediate 10 percent drop in the value of the pound. Japanese companies, which had been using the U.K. as a platform for exports to Europe, are now preparing to move operations to the continent to maintain access to that much larger and more lucrative market. Car manufacturers are especially concerned given deeply integrated supply chains and just-in-time logistical systems.
The Brexit referendum plunged Britain and the EU into uncharted territory and the passage of time since the historical vote has done little if anything to diminish the uncertainty that surrounds the withdrawal process. May has struggled to find a consensus that would allow Brexit to proceed. The failure is not hers, but that of the entire British political class.