One of the more dramatic subplots of the very dramatic day in Britain’s House of Commons was Labour MP Tulip Siddiq’s decision to delay a planned cesarean section so she could show up at Parliament in a wheelchair to cast a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
It’s regrettable, as many of her colleagues noted, that there were no procedures to allow her to cast a proxy vote. It’s also regrettable she made this sacrifice for a vote that turned out to be not even close.
Parliament rejected the deal May had negotiated with the EU by a vote of 432–202—the first time a government motion has been defeated by more than 100 votes since the 1920s. One hundred and eighteen Conservatives voted against their own government. It’s been clear since December that May did not have the votes to actually pass the deal, and the only real uncertainty was the margin of defeat. Following the lopsided vote, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, put forward a motion of no confidence in May’s government, which will be voted on tomorrow evening.
What happens next? Nobody actually has any idea, because the rules are being negotiated on the fly and every ultimatum, deadline, and statement of principle should be taken with a grain of salt. But there are a few possibilities.
First, despite today’s historic defeat, it’s not out of the question that May could win tomorrow’s vote. Her coalition partner, the Democratic Unionist Party, which is strongly opposed to her deal, says it will support her remaining prime minister. And despite the intraparty rebellion over her Brexit deal, May comfortably won a confidence vote within the Conservative Party just last month.
Disappointed as they may be in the terms she negotiated with Brussels, are Conservatives really going to abandon her if her ouster would open up the possibility of Corbyn becoming prime minister? The Guardian reports that Jacob Rees-Mogg, a right-wing MP who leads a faction of hard-line Brexiteers who rejected May’s deal, will nonetheless support her in the vote.
If May loses the vote, there’s a 14-day period in which a new government can be formed. During this period, May could stay and fight or step down to let a new Conservative leader try to cobble together a workable administration. (She may have a hard time finding anyone who wants such a thankless job right now.) Given the current numbers in Parliament, there’s probably no other party capable of forming a coalition. If no government can be formed within 14 days, a new general election would be called but could not be held for at least 25 working days after that.
This is a lot of time, given that the March 29 Brexit deadline is only 73 days away. If no further action is taken between now and then, Britain will leave the EU without any trade agreement with Europe. While some hard-line Brexiteers support the “no deal” scenario, economists have warned the consequences could be dire for an economy that’s deeply integrated with the continent.
Or is it? After both sides had long insisted that the March 29 deadline was set in stone, EU officials are now reportedly preparing for the possibility that Britain will ask for an extension. This could be granted, though it would have to be agreed on unanimously by EU member states.
But even with unlimited time, it’s not at all clear that May, or whoever might replace her, could come up with a “better” deal than the one rejected today.
The main sticking point is that no side of this debate wants to impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. To avoid this, under May’s proposal, the entire United Kingdom would remain in a customs union with the EU for at least a 21-month transition period after leaving the union. Nobody is a fan of this, since Britain would be bound to economic and legal policies that it no longer has a role in shaping and would be unable to negotiate its own trade deals. After the 21 months, if no solution to the Northern Irish dilemma is agreed to, Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union when the rest of the U.K. exits. Many Conservatives, particularly May’s Unionist coalition allies, are aghast at this solution, since it would effectively economically separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the country.
It makes sense that these solutions are unpopular. But other than some vague musing about technological solutions, nobody has come up with a better idea that grants Britain full economic independence from Europe, keeps Northern Ireland fully united with the rest of the U.K., and avoids customs checks on the Irish border.
In a statement following today’s vote, May said that if she wins the confidence vote, she will hold meetings to “identify what would be required to secure the backing of the House” for her deal. This might make sense if she had lost by a handful or even a few dozen votes, but given the margin, it seems unlikely that a few tweaks or reassurances would win enough new votes to get the bill over the hump.
Renewed enthusiasm is growing among some MPs in both parties for a “Norway-style” Brexit deal that would leave Britain with a much closer economic relationship with Europe, though it’s not clear this would satisfy Brexit supporters given that the country wouldn’t have full control over immigration policy—one of the key selling points of the whole Brexit concept. There’s also the possibility of a new referendum: Thousands of “people’s vote” supporters cheered outside Parliament as May’s deal was voted down on Tuesday. But this is still a tough sell for MPs of all parties from districts whose constituents supported Brexit and would see a do-over as a betrayal.
Over the next two months—or likely longer—Britain’s leaders are going to have to make some very unpleasant choices.