Britain’s big vote finally arrived Tuesday, and as expected, Parliament handed Prime Minister Theresa May a crushing defeat, rejecting her deal for exiting the European Union by a vote of 432 to 202.
[You can read our full story on the vote, a defeat of historic proportions for a prime minister, and its consequences for Britain here.]
The opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, promptly made a motion of no confidence in Mrs. May, in the hope of forcing early parliamentary elections. The prime minister said the motion would be debated on Wednesday.
After two and a half years of negotiation, argument, predictions and posturing, lawmakers at last cast what is likely to be one of the most important votes in their careers, throwing Brexit into limbo with just 73 days until it is scheduled to take effect.
• No one knows what will come next, as Britain enters uncharted territory, and various factions make contradictory demands.
• Much was at stake in the vote: Britain’s place in Europe, its economic future and possibly the survival of Mrs. May’s increasingly shaky Conservative government.
• Debate concluded at 7 p.m., after more than 50 hours of Parliamentary argument that began in early December, and the vote was over at 7:39 p.m. In a surprise, there were no serious attempts to amend the bill before the vote.
• Mrs. May must return to Parliament by Monday with a backup plan. If nothing is approved by March 29, Britain would make a “no-deal” departure from the bloc, which could pose dire economic risks. (Many legislators are alarmed about this. Voters, not so much.)
A marathon debate finishes with appeals from May and Corbyn
At long last, the final day of debate came, and Prime Minister Theresa May made her closing argument to Parliament, continuing to insist, despite all signs that her deal would suffer a crushing defeat, that it was the only viable option, “a decision that will define our country for decades to come.”
There is no possibility of negotiating a better pact with Europe, she said, because “no such alternative deal exists,” and a general election would not change that. She again ruled out a second popular referendum on Brexit as a betrayal of the voters’ will, and argued that leaving the European Union without an agreement would be disastrous.
But with her deal, she asserted, “we can lay the foundations from which to build a better Britain.”
Her appeal came at the close of almost six uninterrupted hours of impassioned pleas in the House of Commons from lawmakers — some angry, others pained — that illustrated the wide-ranging opposition to her deal. In all, there were more than 50 hours of debate, spread across almost six weeks — one of the most exhaustive deliberations in modern parliamentary history.
“The withdrawal agreement is, in short, a reckless leap in the dark,” Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said just before Mrs. May spoke. “It risks many companies relocating abroad, taking jobs and investment with them.”
The prime minister, he said, “has run down the clock in a cynical attempt to strong-arm members into backing her agreement.”
The right path, Mr. Corbyn said, was to reject the bill, delay the Brexit deadline and call parliamentary elections. — Richard Pérez-Peña
Long-awaited bill faced dim prospects all along
Since June 2016, when 52 percent of British voters approved a referendum to leave the European Union, everything had built up to the vote on Tuesday. The bill would have determined the trade and immigration relationship between Britain and the bloc through the end of 2020, while a permanent agreement is negotiated.
Long before lawmakers began debating Prime Minister Theresa May’s bill in December, it seemed doomed.
What happens next?
With Prime Minister Theresa May’s bill defeated, the question dominating British politics is: What comes next?
Mrs. May has until Monday to present a backup plan to Parliament. The range of possibilities is wide, unappealing and a bit bewildering.
If the deal had lost by a narrow margin, she might have tried to win a few concessions from Brussels and return to Parliament for a second vote. But with a resounding defeat, that option becomes less likely.
As things now stand, Britain will leave the European Union on March 29. Neither Mrs. May’s government nor the European bloc wants that to happen without an agreement in place — most experts predict that a no-deal Brexit would be chaotic and economically damaging.
With little time left to negotiate anew, the prime minister may be forced to ask Parliament to postpone Brexit.
She could also call a second referendum, an option favored by lawmakers who hope that British voters have changed their minds. And Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, wants to force early elections, in the hope of taking power.
But a note of caution about those who would write off Mrs. May when the situation looks bleak. She has been here before. And before that. And, yes, before that, too. — Richard Pérez-Peña
[Read more about the Brexit possibilities here]
For businesses, a chance to gain clarity is lost
The vote did nothing to help little of the detail that businesses need to plan their operations.
“The longer this Brexit political drama continues, the less and less attractive the U.K. is going to be” to investors, Iain Anderson, the executive chairman of the consulting firm Cicero Group, said last week.
“Make no mistake, no-deal cannot be ‘managed,’ ” Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said last week.
The government has tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to ease public anxiety over a no-deal scenario. Last week it created an artificial traffic jam to test how to manage disruption at the border, an exercise that was widely derided.
Manufacturers fear that a no-deal exit would wreak havoc on just-in-time manufacturing, which relies on parts crossing borders and arriving within minutes of assembly. — Amie Tsang
The deal took fire from multiple directions
There were many objections to the Brexit bill, making clear that no approach to leaving the European Union commanded anything close to majority support.
Hard-line pro-Brexit Conservatives argued that the deal tied Britain much too closely to European trade rules for the foreseeable future. Many contended that a no-deal exit from the bloc would be preferable.
The 1998 accord that brought peace to Northern Ireland guarantees free movement of goods and people between that part of Britain and the Republic of Ireland, a European Union member. But many Conservatives, and the Democratic Unionist Party, a small group in Northern Ireland allied with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, objected to the way her proposal would protect that guarantee.
The deal Mrs. May reached with Brussels includes a “backstop” that would keep Northern Ireland more closely tied to the bloc than with the rest of Britain if the two sides are unable to reach a long-term agreement by the end of 2020. Critics said that would effectively divide Britain in two.
There are lawmakers in several parties who oppose Brexit in any form and want a second referendum. And Mrs. May has accused the opposition Labour Party of political opportunism, by simply opposing anything her government tries to do. — Richard Pérez-Peña
Parliament speaker is caught in the middle
He’s the unlikeliest star of this season of Brexit, alternately reviled and adored and often on tabloid front pages: John Bercow, the House of Commons speaker. His job, as the highest authority in the chamber, is to preside over debates and, mostly, to get members to shut up.
The role is supposed to be strictly nonpartisan.
But Mr. Bercow — easily recognizable with his floppy silver hair and booming voice — has found himself in the position of an umpire who makes a controversial call in the early innings that could tip the whole game.
Last week, a member of Parliament proposed requiring Prime Minister Theresa May to return within three days to announce what the government would do next if the original deal was rejected. She previously had 21 days to decide.
By Parliament’s arcane rules (it mostly hinged on the meaning of “forthwith”), Mr. Bercow should have rejected that amendment. But he didn’t. And Parliament passed it by a slim margin.
That decision tipped the balance of power to Parliament from Mrs. May’s government, and will let lawmakers weigh in with alternatives.
And Mr. Bercow may not be done yet. Commentators said it could end up being the most radical shift in relations between the government and Parliament since the speaker defied King Charles I in 1642. — Benjamin Mueller
Brussels waits and watches, warily
The Brexit drama — psychological and political — has left European Union leaders transfixed and horrified. The other 27 member states have their own domestic political considerations, but the vote in London on Tuesday was particularly momentous, though few felt that it will bring any sort of conclusion.
Many expect Prime Minister Theresa May, if she survives, to try to return to Brussels for more talks, and then probably to ask to postpone the withdrawal, set for March 29.
European officials seem optimistic that the other 27 states would agree unanimously to an extension, as long as there is a sense that Britain is on track to reach an agreement before elections for the European Parliament begin in May.
No one wants a “no-deal” Brexit, even if some think it may shake the markets enough to cause Britain to rethink. Brussels believes strongly that what really matters for a long-term relationship are the negotiations that would follow.
Most European leaders want Britain to stay, but they are also fed up with British indecision. And many fear that Mrs. May has lost control over the outcome. — Steven Erlanger
Financial markets are watched closely for reactions
The pound often bears the brunt of bad Brexit news, though it has also risen when there was good news.
With rejection of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal, investors were focused more on the size of the vote margin, 432 to 202, and the possibility that Britain might leave the European Union with no deal in place.
“If the bill is not passed, as is widely expected, sterling and U.K. financial assets will probably be unmoved since this is the expectation — the markets have priced it in,” said Nigel Green, the founder of deVere Group, a financial advisory firm, in a note.
If there is any sign of a no-deal Brexit, or a new parliamentary election, the pound could suffer. But at the same time, it could rise if Mrs. May is able to buy time and indicates that she intends to extend the negotiation period or adopt a softer stance on Brexit, according to Jordan Rochester, a foreign exchange strategist at the Japanese bank Nomura. — Amie Tsang
Ireland, with much at stake, prepares for the worst
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland said on Monday that he was optimistic an agreement would be reached for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, but said his government was continuing to prepare for a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
Other than Britain itself, no country has as much at stake as Ireland. Britain is its largest trading partner, and many European goods pass through Britain on their way to Ireland.
The most controversial part of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal was the “backstop” to preserve free movement of people and commerce across Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland. People on both sides of the border cherish that freedom, and a bungled Brexit could put it at risk.
Mr. Varadkar warned reporters in Dublin on Monday that a no-deal Brexit would mean certain medicines could fall into short supply and said that the government must be ready for such possibilities.
“I’m not going to say to you that everything is going to be fine,” he said. “Of course there will be interruptions and negative impact, but we’ll be as prepared as we possibly can be.”
Before the vote on Tuesday, the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said that his country must “hold its nerve” on Brexit.
After the vote, he said, “we’ll assess the situation.” — Ceylan Yeginsu
A series of expected votes did not materialize
Before Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal got a vote Tuesday night, Parliament was expected to take up a series of amendment to the bill. But in the end, only one amendment was considered, and not terribly seriously — it was defeated, 600 to 24.
But the House Speaker, John Bercow, who has wide leeway to reject amendments, ruled Tuesday afternoon that only four would be considered. Two of the four amendments, introduced by opposition leaders, would have scuttled Mrs. May’s deal while also rejecting a “no-deal” exit and committing to a pursuit of other options.
But in a surprise move, when the amendments were called at 7 p.m., the sponsors of three of the four withdrew them. The only amendment left to vote on would have given Britain the right to terminate the Northern Ireland backstop agreement without the consent of the European Union — a condition that Brussels considers unacceptable.
Amendments that the government supported were rejected by Mr. Bercow, adding fuel to Conservative accusations that he has not been an impartial arbiter.
— Benjamin Mueller
Business backed the deal, but says the government needs a Plan B
The Confederation of British Industry, representing 190,000 businesses, voiced its support for Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal on Tuesday, but said it expected the government to have an alternative solution if the bill failed.
“The vast majority of business would like to see this deal passed tonight,” John Allan, the group’s president, told the BBC. “But we’ve got to be realistic, it looks extremely unlikely that it will be, and we’ll be in a new situation tomorrow morning.”
“This will be a situation of national emergency,” he said. “We are only 70-plus days away from crashing out of the E.U. Businesses are making decisions every day about postponing investments, moving jobs to Europe.”
A no-deal exit would do “irreparable harm to the U.K. economy,” Mr. Allan warned.
This week, C.B.I. and the consulting firm PwC reported that their quarterly survey of the finance industry showed that the volume of business done in London had shrunk for the first time in five years, as the uncertainty created by Brexit took its toll. — Amie Tsang
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