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The UK Brexit deal vote, explained in 500 words

Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal suffered a historic defeat, and now her government faces a no-confidence vote.

MPs Vote On Theresa May’s Brexit Deal
Prime Minister Theresa May addresses MPs ahead of the vote on her Brexit deal. Her last-minute plea failed.
Jack Taylor/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was just voted down by Parliament.

May’s deal lost 432 to 202, a humiliating margin that reveals how unpopular her plan was. Members of Parliament have been vocal about opposing the deal since May delivered it last year.

Her plan was a compromise — an attempt to soften the split with the European Union while paving a way for a formal break with the bloc. But the deal found opponents on both sides of the Brexit debate, from Brexiteers who want a more decisive split with the EU and from those who want to remain close to the EU or not leave at all. Each, in some way, was hoping that they wouldn’t have to compromise and, by defeating the deal, could get their way.

The stunning 230-vote loss was an unequivocal rejection of May’s deal. And now, May’s government faces a no-confidence vote.

If May loses, her government goes down. This would kick off a 14-day window for Parliament to try to form a new government. May could try to reconstitute her government, or she could step aside and let another Conservative try to do this. Opposition parties will also jockey to try to form a new government. Whatever the outcome, members of Parliament would have to approve this new government.

If, after two weeks, there’s no government in place, it would trigger a general election. That can’t happen immediately — at least 25 working days — but it would likely take a few weeks to host the elections.

Labour, the opposition party led by Jeremy Corbyn, put forward the no-confidence motion with the hope of achieving general elections. Corbyn has said he’d try to renegotiate the Brexit deal if he becomes prime minister but has not committed to a second referendum — a do-over vote on Brexit, basically — despite support within his party for one.

If May survives the no-confidence vote, she’ll have to deliver a Brexit plan B to Parliament next week. Members of Parliament can propose amendments, potentially giving them more control over the process. It’s not clear if she’ll be able to salvage the deal, but she’s said she’ll meet with leaders of both parties, and will likely meet with European Union leaders soon to see if they can offer anything.

Meanwhile, the Brexit deadline — March 29, 2019 — is just 73 days away, and the United Kingdom has no clear path forward for exiting the European Union.

If no deal is reached (and approved by Parliament) by that deadline, the UK will crash out of the EU without a formal plan in place. The consequences of that would be potentially catastrophic. The government has stepped up contingency planning in recent weeks, but it may not be enough to absorb the economic and political shock of this scenario, which could include food and medicine shortages, flights grounded, ports of entry backed up for miles, and troops deployed to deal with any unrest.