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The last 24 hours of Brexit, explained

Parliament voted “no” on all the Brexit options, as Prime Minister Theresa May looks to bring back her deal for a third vote.

Brexit protesters stand by light up letters that read ‘Let us vote’, outside the Houses of Parliament on March 27, 2019 in London, England.
Protesters in London on March 27, 2019.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The British Parliament still can’t agree on what kind of Brexit it wants.

Members of Parliament (MPs) held “indicative votes” on Wednesday, casting ballots for eight different options on how the United Kingdom should break up with the European Union. The goal of the process was to reveal what kind of Brexit plan might win a majority in the House of Commons, after MPs twice rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

There’s just one problem — no option won a clear majority.

A plan for a second referendum, in which any Brexit deal approved by Parliament would go back to the public for a vote, received the most “aye” votes. A customs union arrangement, where the UK would follow the same customs rules as the EU, came in second.

Earlier that day, the prime minister had announced that she would resign if Parliament backed her Brexit plan, which has twice been defeated in Parliament by very large margins. May is still planning to bring her deal for a third vote on Friday.

The failure of the indicative votes to break the logjam in Parliament could boost her deal somewhat, as May can make the case that Parliament tried and failed to come up with an alternative. But even with May’s promise to sacrifice her premiership, her deal still might not win enough support.

MPs are expected Monday to debate and vote on the options that got the most votes, to see if it’s possible to win a majority for something. There will probably be a few more twists along the way, but here’s a breakdown of the action on Wednesday and what might happen next.

A customs union and people’s vote got the most votes

MPs were given a ballot on Wednesday, which contained eight different Brexit options. They could mark “aye” or “no” next to each, and from there, the ballots were collected and tallied. They looked like this:

Here’s a summary of the eight options and the results.

  • No-deal Brexit

This means crashing out of the EU without any agreement or transition period in place, and is the default option on April 12 if the UK can’t approve a deal. Parliament has already rejected leaving the EU without a deal, so, no surprise, this was defeated 160-400.

  • Common market 2.0

Also known as “Norway Plus.” Not to get super in the weeds, but this is a very soft Brexit proposal, meaning the UK and the EU would have very close economic ties. The model for this is Norway, which is not an EU member but has access to the EU single market, which broadly means free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. The “plus” here is because this would also mean joining a customs union. This went down, 188-283.

  • Norway option

The same as the plan above — but without the plus, which means no customs arrangement. This lost 65-377.

  • Customs union

This would allow for membership in the customs union post-Brexit, which means the UK would follow all the EU customs rules. This plan was actually the most popular — it got 264 yes votes, and only 272 no votes — so it only lost by eight votes.

  • Labour plan

This is Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal, which focuses on a future relationship that would involve customs union membership, but with the ability for the UK to make its own trade deals. It would also allow for alignment with the single-market rules and close cooperation on issues like security and with certain EU institutions. It’s not clear the EU would go for this plan because it might involve the UK cherry-picking which EU rules it would follow, but it doesn’t matter, for now, because it lost 237 to 307.

  • Revoke Article 50, sort of

This basically called for the prime minister to stop Brexit if the UK doesn’t have a deal two days before the deadline and if Parliament agrees it does not want to leave the EU without a deal. (Article 50 is the mechanism in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that the UK is using to leave the bloc.) This one lost 184 to 293.

  • Second referendum

This says that any Brexit deal approved by Parliament has to go back to the public for a vote. This got the most “aye” votes, with 268, but 295 people voted against it, so it was defeated by a greater margin than the customs union.

  • A “managed no-deal”

This is similar to a plan that the EU has already rejected, which would basically involve the UK leaving the EU without a deal. There would still be a transition period whereby the two sides would negotiate some free trade agreements. It was defeated 139 to 422.

Okay, so what does this all mean?

Oliver Letwin, the Conservative MP who put forward the indicative votes motion, insisted that lawmakers should debate again Monday, knocking out the biggest losers (no-deal, etc.) and debating and casting ballots again on Wednesday’s top vote-getters, likely the top four or so, but that’s still unclear. Those still might not secure a majority, but some of these plans such as the second referendum and customs union lost got more votes than May’s deal has — so it might be possible to convert a few MPs to support one of these alternative plans.

Oh, and there’s still May’s deal.

Her announcement that she would resign if Parliament backed her deal on a third vote has convinced a slew of hardliners to support her, but she still doesn’t have the votes to pass it yet. May’s key allies in Northern Island — the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — have said they will still vote against the deal, meaning it’s unlikely that it will pass on a third go-round.

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow also repeated Wednesday he would not allow a third Brexit deal vote unless it had substantial changes.

May’s government is trying to get around this by bringing forward one part of the Brexit deal — the nearly 600-page withdrawal agreement — for a vote on Friday, and leaving off the second part, which is the political declaration that says the EU and UK will negotiate a future relationship.

The withdrawal agreement is a legal text that’s basically the divorce settlement between the UK and the EU. It lays out a transition period after the UK officially leaves the EU, how much the UK must pay the EU when it leaves, and what happens to EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa. The agreement also includes the so-called “Irish backstop” that prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state) after Brexit.

The political declaration is a much shorter document that says the EU and the UK are committed to negotiating a future partnership on issues such as trade, security, foreign policy.

May has decoupled the withdrawal agreement and political declaration because Bercow agreed it would be a substantial enough change to the Brexit deal to allow a vote on Friday. May also wants to get the withdrawal agreement approved by Friday to lock in the new Brexit deadline of May 22.

The EU has said it would grant the UK an extension until that date if Parliament passed a withdrawal agreement by this week. If this happens, it would make it less likely that the UK would ask for a longer, indefinite Brexit delay, which would then require it to participate in European parliamentary elections, on May 23. (Although it’s not yet clear if this precludes the UK from asking for a longer extension before April 12.)

This gambit by May’s government could also be doomed, as some MPs will not want to take a vote without the political declaration part of her Brexit agreement attached. Opposition Labour MPs have mostly objected to the political declaration because they want more clarity on what the future EU-UK relationship might be — but Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, said just voting for the withdrawal agreement would mean the “blindest of blindfold Brexits.”

Without support from Labour, it doesn’t look as if May’s deal will pass, even though she managed to win over some of the most notorious Brexit hardliners. That’s because there are still some holdouts among her own coalition — most notably the DUP, which objects to the withdrawal agreement motion. The 10 DUP lawmakers are expected to vote against the deal.

Put together, it looks like May’s withdrawal agreement is headed for another defeat on March 29 — the day the UK was supposed to leave the EU. If that happens, May and Parliament will need to come up with another type of Brexit plan — or risk crashing out of the EU without any deal at all.