Across Europe, politicians, pundits, and ordinary people are saying, “Now what?”
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s painfully negotiated plan to take Great Britain out of the European Union on March 29 suffered a massive defeat in Parliament, throwing the entire issue into doubt with no parliamentary consensus on any alternative.
May’s Brexit plan lost by 432 votes to 202, with 118 members of May’s own party leaving her hanging out to dry. In recent weeks, May had been hoping that conservative defections could be offset by support from members of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. In the end, only three Labour members voted for the plan.
A defeat so massive usually means a “no-confidence” vote is coming. Such a vote is expected tomorrow and it’s hard to see how May’s government will be standing by the end of the day.
More important than the domestic politics of the situation is the genuine confusion about what comes next.
The UK is still on course to leave on 29 March but the defeat throws the manner of that departure – and the timing of it – into further doubt.
MPs who want either a further referendum, a softer version of the Brexit proposed by Mrs May, to stop Brexit altogether or to leave without a deal, will ramp up their efforts to get what they want, as a weakened PM offered to listen to their arguments.
The Brexit debate has cut across traditional party lines.
The bottom line is that there is no parliamentary majority for any course of action going forward. Although the Labour Party generally supports a second referendum on Great Britain leaving the EU, any such proposal would fall short of a majority.
As for the “no-confidence” vote, conservatives have no one waiting in the wings to assume leadership of the party, and a snap election would be risky given May’s failure to manage an orderly exit from the EU. Many of the defectors who voted against May on the Brexit deal may feel compelled to support her in a parliamentary “no-confidence” vote:
Former foreign secretary and leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson said it was a “bigger defeat than people have been expecting” – and it meant Mrs May’s deal was now “dead”.
But he said it gave the prime minister a “massive mandate to go back to Brussels” to negotiate a better deal, without the controversial Northern Ireland backstop.
And he said he would back Mrs May in Wednesday’s confidence vote.
Johnson, who would be a primary challenger for the leadership spot if May’s government falls, hasn’t been listening to EU leaders in Brussels. They have categorically refused to renegotiate anything with Great Britain, hoping that the resulting chaos of a no-Brexit exit on March 29 will drive the Brits back into their arms.
No “soft Brexit.” No “hard Brexit.” No second referendum. Is there anyone who can build a consensus on how Great Britain is going to leave the EU? Or not?