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Theresa May halts Brexit deal vote to avoid defeat, throwing British politics into chaos

May’s decision to postpone a vote on her deal adds even more uncertainty to the future of Brexit.

British Government Delays The Meaningful Vote On Brexit
Prime Minister Theresa May on December 10, 2018, after she announced that she would delay the vote on her Brexit deal.
Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is postponing the vote on her Brexit deal, a last-minute move to avoid almost certain defeat in the UK Parliament on Tuesday.

May’s decision confirmed what many had already predicted: that not only does she lack the votes to pass her agreement that outlines Britain’s divorce from the European Union, but that it would have gone down with a humiliating margin, potentially putting her government in jeopardy.

“If we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be defeated by a significant margin,” May told Parliament on Monday. “We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the house at this time.”

May is ostensibly pushing the vote to buy more time to win support, though where that support could come from is stubbornly unclear. Her deal is deeply unpopular with just about everyone — from the hard Brexiteers who want a clean split with Europe to the pro-Remain camp who want to maintain close ties to the EU.

And there’s only so much she can delay. The Brexit deadline is March 29, 2019, and the closer the UK gets to that date without a deal, the more likely the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, where the UK leaves the bloc without any contingency plans.

Members of Parliament have proposed other solutions — holding another referendum to let the British people decide Brexit, or negotiating an even softer Brexit — but there’s no political consensus behind any one of those remedies right now.

This vote postponement means Britain will remain in Brexit limbo for just a little bit longer — with really no idea of what comes next. Or as one UK political editor put it: “Dear lord above what a fucking shambles.”

May postponed the vote. What is going on?

May’s Brexit deal was headed for defeat on December 11, but it started to become increasingly obvious that the vote would be a massive loss and prove hugely embarrassing for May. We’re talking triple digits, in a 650-member Parliament.

So just one day before the vote, May pulled the deal — though there are still some questions on whether she can do this.

Opposition has hardened against the withdrawal agreement. The hard Brexiteers — those who want a clean break from the EU — see this document as potentially trapping the UK in a dependent relationship with the bloc indefinitely. Those who are pro-Europe, or ultimately want to Remain, view the deal as weakening the UK and leaving it in a much worse position economically and politically.

At issue is part of the Brexit deal referred to as the “Irish backstop,” which is basically an insurance policy to guarantee that the border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) remains open as the UK and EU try to negotiate their future relationship.

May’s deal seeks to preserve this open border through a complicated arrangement whereby the UK remains part of the EU customs union and Northern Ireland joins in some elements of the single market, which refers to the four fundamental freedoms of the EU: free movement of people, services, capital, and goods. The UK can’t unilaterally pull out of this setup, and opponents see this as potentially hitching the UK to the EU without an end date.

The government’s own legal advice, which May’s government was forced to publish after a historic contempt vote last week, confirmed those fears by warning that the UK could end up stuck in “protracted and repeated rounds of negotiations” for years.

May, addressing Parliament on Monday, made clear that any withdrawal agreement required protections for the Irish border. She said she would take the concerns of the UK MPs to EU leaders this week, ahead of an already scheduled summit meeting in Brussels with EU leaders on Thursday and Friday. But she reiterated that any deal had to include a backstop, and was very vague on her strategy.

“I spoke to a number of EU leaders over the weekend, and in advance of the European council I will go to see my counterparts in other member states and the leadership of the council and the commission,” May told Parliament in her Monday remarks. “I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House [of Commons] has expressed.”

It’s doubtful the EU will give concessions on the backstop. It took more than a year of tortured negotiations to reach this compromise deal. The EU has repeatedly said it’s this deal or no deal at all — whether by breaking up without an agreement or canceling Brexit altogether. On the Irish border, they’ve also been firm: A backstop must be in place in any withdrawal agreement to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Even if May can eke out a few concessions from the Europeans, they will be minor. The fundamentals of the agreement won’t change — which means the deal’s defeat has been delayed but probably not averted.

May delays vote as Brexit deadline looms

May defended her decision to postpone the vote, though she didn’t really offer a great solution for this mess. She repeated arguments she’s made before: She’s entrusted to make a Brexit deal that works for the UK, and that even though she personally wanted to Remain, it is her “duty is to honor the result of that vote.”

It’s this deal or no deal, she said, and she reiterated her stance that other options, such as a second referendum, would divide the country even further.

When MPs will vote on the Brexit deal still isn’t clear, and there are legal questions over how late a vote can be held ahead of the March 29, 2019, Brexit deadline. The latest guess is for sometime after Christmas, possibly in January, but no date has been scheduled so far.

This is important for a number of reasons. For one, the UK Parliament voted last week to give itself a meaningful say on a Brexit “plan B” if May’s deal failed. If May forces the vote into January or later, that will limit the time a (very divided) Parliament can even come up with or implement a fallback plan.

This again raises the specter of a no-deal Brexit, which would be bad for the EU but potentially catastrophic for the UK. The UK’s membership in the EU will expire, deal or no deal: 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and 1 million Britons living in other EU countries would lose all automatic rights and protections overnight. Air travel in the UK would grind to an immediate halt. British supermarkets could run out of food. And that’s just a few of the dramatic outcomes.

May, in her address to Parliament, said she was stepping up no-deal contingency planning, according to the Guardian, even as she warned that such a scenario would be very, very bad.

“If you want to leave without a deal, be upfront that in the short term, this would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden,” she said.

What happens next? Honest answer: No one knows.

In November, after May and the EU agreed to the Brexit deal, Anand Menon, director of an independent Brexit research institute called UK in a Changing Europe, told me that British politics “faced a number of very implausible outcomes.”

“We might have an election. We might have a referendum. We might have no deal. The prime minister’s deal might be accepted,” he said. “They’re all massively implausible, okay? But what we know is that one of them is going to happen.”

A Brexit-deal vote delay wasn’t on his list then, but his thesis still stands: Anything can happen, and no one really knows what that might be.

Here is what we do know: Parliament likely won’t be voting on the Brexit deal Tuesday. It seems almost impossible that the EU will reopen negotiations with the UK. As one expert told me, the EU might finesse some language, but the substance of the withdrawal agreement isn’t changing.

The UK remains seriously split over what to do next. Some are calling for a second referendum — another “people’s vote” to decide the future of Brexit. It’s still not clear what such a referendum would look like, though, or what it would ask: a vote on May’s Brexit deal? A Leave or Remain do-over vote?

Proponents of a second referendum believe that enough voters will have witnessed the Brexit mess and will opt to Remain on a second try. Their case has been bolstered by a Monday decision by the European Court of Justice that said the UK could unilaterally revoke Article 50 — the mechanism of the EU treaty that the UK used to withdraw from the bloc — and basically cancel Brexit altogether, without the approval of the other 27 EU member states and as long as it remained consistent with UK laws.

Other MPs are arguing to just go back and argue for a softer Brexit — what you’ll hear referred to as the Norway-style deal — which means the UK would remain a member of the single market. This, however, won’t fly with the hard Brexiteers, as they’d have to follow all the EU rules, including accepting the free movement of people.

Then there’s May’s future as prime minister. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, has said May’s government is in “disarray” and she should step aside and call general elections. That could put Labour in power, though it’s not clear the party has a real solution to Brexit that the EU would accept.

Other opposition parties, including the Scottish National Party (SNP), are pushing Corbyn to move on a no-confidence vote in Parliament, which could remove May from power and potentially trigger general elections. For a no-confidence vote in Parliament to succeed, Conservatives or members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the 10 members of the Northern Ireland party that prop up May’s minority government, would have to join the opposition.

A number of Conservatives and the DUP may not support May’s deal, but they probably hate the possibility of a Corbyn prime ministership even more.

May could also resign, though her decision to postpone the vote seems to be a signal that she’s not quite ready to give up power.

As Parliament is tearing itself apart, the public is marching in the streets both for and against Brexit and the British pound is plummeting. Britain is no closer to figuring out Brexit, with just 109 days to go.

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