British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal was given another thumping defeat in Parliament on Tuesday, despite her last-minute efforts to secure concessions from E.U. leaders -- just weeks before Britain is set to leave the bloc.
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
SHOCK: British PM Theresa May suffers another major defeat on revised Brexit deal, as clock ticks down
The withdrawal agreement, hashed out with European leaders in 2018, was defeated 391-242, despite a dramatic, last-minute trip to Strasbourg by May on Monday, after which she had declared she had secured legally binding changes to the deal in an effort to appease parliamentarians. It was the second such defeat for the bill, after it was rejected 432-202 in January -- the largest defeat for a prime minister in the history of the House of Commons.
May and her allies had sought to rally MPs to the deal in the hours before the vote, with a series of speeches urging lawmakers to back the deal to make sure Britain can leave the bloc with a deal on March 29.
“There is only one certainty if we don’t pass this vote tonight and that is that uncertainty will continue for our citizens and for our businesses,” a hoarse May warned MPs in the House of Commons.
“The reality is that we face a fork in the road, it is time to choose, it is time to support this deal, it is time for our country to move forward,” Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said moments before the vote.
Much of the opposition to the deal on the right comes from concern over the “backstop” -- a safety net by which the U.K. temporarily remains in a customs union until a trade deal in secured, so as to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“Brexiteers” have pointed to the lack of a unilateral exit mechanism in the backstop as evidence that it could lead to Britain never leaving the bloc, or being forced to accept unfavorable trading terms. May returned late Monday from a last-gasp meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and announced that she had in fact secured "legally binding" changes to the agreement to prevent a permanent backstop.
But May's brief hopes of it moving the needle were dealt a blow on Tuesday when Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told the House of Commons that while the new clauses “enhance” the agreement, it does not change the fundamental risk.
The legal risk...remains unchanged,” he told the House. “The question for the House is whether, in light of these improvements, as a political judgement, the House should now enter into those arrangements.”
May urged pro-Remain MPs to respect the 2016 referendum result, while telling pro-Brexit MPs that no Brexit at all was a real risk if they were to vote down her deal.
“Members across the aisles should ask themselves if they want to make the perfect the enemy of the good,” she said.
Labour Party MPs slammed May for her handling of Brexit and for her deal, accusing her of promoting a “blindfold Brexit.”
“For many honorable members the biggest concern is that her agreement provides no legal certainty about any of the fundamental questions about our future relationship with the E.U.” MP Liz Kendall told May. “As a result we will be back here time and time again and, far from providing certainty for the future, her blindfold Brexit is the most uncertain future for our country of all.”
It appeared that her concessions from Europe weren't enough to move two key groups -- the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs -- who both indicated they would oppose the deal even with the new changes.
“The only reason for voting for the deal, which remains a bad deal...is the fear that if the deal is voted down then we might not leave the European Union,” ERG Chair Jacob Rees Mogg told Sky News. “That would be the one thing that would change people’s minds but I don’t think that is the case.”
The rejection of May's deal leaves Britain scheduled to leave the bloc with no deal on March 29, reverting Britain to World Trade Organization (WTO) terms with the E.U. Business groups, members of May's government and pro-Remain MPs have warned that such a “no deal” Brexit will cause havoc, but pro-Brexit MPs have brushed off that fear as overblown.
Parliament is now scheduled to vote Wednesday on a “no deal” Brexit -- a motion likely to be voted down. Should that happen, on Thursday a motion to delay Brexit past March 29 date of departure will be voted on.
May will almost certainly face further calls for either her resignation, or to call for a new general election to break the parliamentary stalemate. May has so far fended off a vote of no confidence from her own party in December, and a vote of no confidence in the government in January.
Should the Commons vote to delay Brexit, it is unclear if the E.U. will even accept the call to delay Britain’s departure -- and could even demand a re-do of the referendum as part of the terms to accept such a delay.
French President Emmanuel Macron said this month that “under no circumstances would we accept an extension without a clear perspective” from the British.
"We don't need time, we need decisions," he said.
Adam Shaw is a reporter covering U.S. and European politics for Fox News.