British lawmakers have resoundingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s terms for the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, heightening the country’s sense of uncertainty and paralysis less than two months before the exit is supposed to take effect.
Parliament rejected May’s Brexit plan by a 432-202-vote Tuesday evening, one of the biggest parliamentary defeats in British history. It was a humiliating landslide in which scores of lawmakers from May’s own Conservative Party turned against their leader, along with the opposition Labour Party. Hostility to May’s pullout plan came from all sides of the political spectrum – from those who felt May’s plan kept Britain too tethered to the EU and those who wanted as close a post-divorce relationship as possible.
With the official exit date of March 29 looming, May must now try to negotiate a revised withdrawal agreement with the EU. But securing changes in the next few weeks that will satisfy the rebels in her ranks, the Labour Party and 27 EU nations will be a tough challenge. That leaves the U.K. at risk of tumbling out of the European Union with no deal at all, which critics warn will cause economic chaos and financial disaster.
“Every day that passes without this issue being resolved means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancor,” a grim-faced May said immediately after the vote. “The government has heard what the House [of Commons] has said tonight. But I ask members on all sides of the house to listen to the British people who want this issue settled.”
The entertainment industry – which was overwhelmingly in support of Britain remaining in the EU – has chafed under the uncertainty and begun taking steps to protect itself. Major television companies, such as Discovery, have handed in some of their U.K.-issued channel licenses, fearing that they won’t be recognized in the rest of Europe after March 29. Film and VFX companies worry that skilled technicians from the Continent will no longer be able to come work in Britain.
Tuesday’s vote in Parliament, after more than 50 hours of debate, was supposed to pave the way for a smooth exit for Britain from the EU. May has been negotiating with the EU for two years on the terms of that withdrawal, shortly after she became prime minister in the wake of the Brexit referendum.
But the agreement the two sides finally hammered out was rejected by Parliament on a number of counts. Some critics said it would jeopardize the unmanned border between Northern Ireland (which would leave the EU with the rest of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (an independent member of the bloc); that could undermine Northern Ireland’s delicate peace plan. Other opponents faulted May’s deal for giving Britain insufficient access to the EU’s single market.
May attempted to rally lawmakers to her side by insisting that she had wrested the most concessions she could from the EU and that an improved agreement was not possible. “No such alternative deal exists,” she told a raucous House of Commons on Tuesday evening. She admonished lawmakers to keep in mind that “this is the most significant vote that any of us will be part of in our political careers.”
Her opponents were unmoved. “This deal is bad for our economy, a bad deal for our democracy and a bad deal for this country,” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said, calling on members of Parliament to “reject this deal because of the harm it would do.”
Corbyn demanded that Britain hold another general election to boot out May and her ruling Conservatives and to give Corbyn and his party a chance to negotiate a better Brexit deal. But trying to hold an election before March 29, or persuading the EU to extend that deadline, is a tall order. Nonetheless, after May’s massive defeat Tuesday evening, Corbyn called for a vote of confidence in her government, which will be held Wednesday. May is likely to survive that vote.
Another alternative gaining some momentum is to hold a new referendum, allowing the British public to vote on May’s plan. Supporters of that idea contend that the “in or out” plebiscite in June 2016 was too vague, with the actual withdrawal terms unknown; voters should now be able to approve or reject the actual Brexit plan.
But that proposal would also have logistical hurdles to surmount. May is fiercely against the idea.
“A second referendum would lead to further division,” she said in Parliament on Tuesday, shortly before her plan was shot down by a huge margin. “It would say to the people we were elected to serve that we were unwilling to do what they had instructed.”