British lawmakers faced a choice on Brexit this week: deal or no-deal. They chose none of the above.
After overwhelmingly voting Tuesday to reject, for a second time, the withdrawal agreement Prime Minister Theresa May had negotiated with the EU, on Wednesday, Parliament voted for an amendment that would rule out a “no-deal Brexit”—a highly risky scenario that would likely result in sharply higher food prices and delays in getting goods into the country, among numerous other disruptions. MPs actually voted to rule out no-deal twice after a complicated set of parliamentary maneuvers that aren’t really worth explaining here but led to the bizarre spectacle of the ruling Conservative party trying to whip its members to vote against its own motion.
Wednesday’s vote is not binding and in no way takes the no-deal scenario off the table. A no-deal Brexit is still what will happen automatically if no further action is taken by March 29, the previously agreed to withdrawal date.
Parliament also voted Wednesday against an amendment that would have endorsed the so-called Malthouse compromise, a scenario under which Britain would leave the EU without a deal but with an extended transition period and a somewhat-fudged replacement for the controversial Irish backstop. The EU had already ruled out this option, even if Parliament had voted for it.
Parliament will now vote Thursday on whether to request an extension to Article 50, the legal mechanism under which Britain is withdrawing from the union. It’s also now increasingly likely that May will put her withdrawal agreement up for a third meaningful vote, now that the only alternative on offer, no-deal, has been rejected. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn rejected the deal/no-deal binary choice, saying the government should debate his party’s alternative plan, a “soft Brexit” that involves a permanent customs union with the European Union, which Brexiteers say would not be a Brexit at all.
The motion the government will put up for vote Thursday, which is still subject to amendment, will set a deadline of next Wednesday for Parliament to approve a deal. If they do, May will ask European governments for an extension just until June 30. If they don’t, she will ask for a longer extension that would require Britain to take part in EU Parliament elections this spring, a scenario May’s government had hoped to avoid.
“The House,” she said, “needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken.”