There may not be any good outcomes for Brexit at this point, but the British Parliament at least had several semi-coherent ways forward this month. It could have approved the deal Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with EU leaders—but Parliament rejected that two weeks ago. It could have kicked May out and started with a new prime minister, but it didn’t do that either. With the clock ticking down until March 29, when Britain is scheduled to exit the EU whether a new deal has been negotiated or not, it basically had three remaining options: Accept the inevitability of a no-deal Brexit, hold a new referendum on whether to go through with Brexit at all, or ask the EU for more time to negotiate something else.
Parliament decided it didn’t want to do any of those, either.
On Tuesday, May put forward a neutral motion designed to allow discussion on the steps forward for Brexit, allowing members of Parliament to propose amendments expressing their preferences on that path forward. Speaker John Bercow allowed votes on seven of those amendments. (If you haven’t been watching, Bercow alone has made these debates into thrilling and hilarious TV.) The House of Commons voted down a Labour Party motion that would allow for debate on alternative ideas, including a new public vote or a permanent customs union with the EU. It also rejected several amendments that would have instructed May to ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline if she’s unable to get her plan approved.
The House approved a nonbinding amendment rejecting the idea of a no-deal Brexit. And in the most-watched vote of the day, it approved an amendment from Conservative MP Graham Brady that requires May’s “Irish backstop” to be replaced with vaguely defined “alternative arrangements.” (The backstop is a controversial provision in the original deal that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with Europe, at least initially, in order to prevent the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.)
The tl;dr of all this is that May is going to Brussels to try to solve a problem she hasn’t been able to solve for the last two years, and now she has only two months. Also, the EU has already rejected the idea of reopening negotiations. Despite the passage of the amendment rejecting a no-deal Brexit, that scenario probably became more likely on Tuesday.
Not surprisingly, markets didn’t react well:
A group of Conservative Party MPs—both Brexiteers and Remainers—see a light at the end of the tunnel in what’s being called the “Malthouse Compromise.” What sounds like a particularly dull Sherlock Holmes story is actually a plan, named after housing minister Kit Malthouse, that involves May negotiating with Brussels to replace the Irish backstop with something more palatable to Brexiteers who worry the backstop would lock Britain indefinitely into a customs union with Europe. The replacement would rely on technology to inspect goods for compliance with EU standards as they cross the border, without need for customs posts. (Important caveat: This technology probably doesn’t exist yet.) If May can’t get that deal, Plan B is a “managed no deal,” where Britain would ask the EU to extend its transition period to allow it to plan for a complete divorce.
The British government has often been accused of kicking the can down the road when it comes to Brexit. But with the no-deal deadline looming, it’s now basically kicking it directly into a wall.