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UK Parliament fails to agree on a new Brexit plan — again

Members of Parliament had another chance to break the political stalemate. But they rejected all four Brexit options, including a second referendum and a customs union.

The Houses of Parliament in London on April 1, 2019.
The Houses of Parliament in London on April 1, 2019.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The British Parliament failed yet again on Monday to break the Brexit impasse.

Members of Parliament (MPs) held a second round of indicative votes to try to figure out an alternative plan for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. The votes were intended to reveal what type of Brexit plan could secure a majority in Parliament.

But nothing won — for the second time.

Last week, lawmakers held indicative votes on eight Brexit options, ranging from softer Brexit plans to a no-deal Brexit. No plan won a majority, although a few alternatives came close, including one option that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU after the breakup.

On Monday, just four options were on the ballot, most of them the finalists from the first round, with some tweaks. The hope was that now, with fewer choices and time running out ahead of the April 12 Brexit deadline, MPs would rally behind a particular plan and offer up a Brexit compromise that could end the political stalemate and uncertainty.

Instead, Parliament failed again.

Here are the four Brexit options that members of Parliament voted on

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow selected four measures for Monday’s vote. Many secured more support than they did the first time around — but just not enough.

  • Customs union

This plan would allow the UK to retain a form of membership in the customs union post-Brexit, which means the UK would continue to follow all the EU customs rules. Parliament defeated this plan last week by a margin of eight votes, and on Monday, it lost by just three. The final tally was 273 in favor and 276 against.

  • Common market 2.0

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) through seeking membership in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) — which is made up of Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, and Liechtenstein — and European Economic Area.

This plan would also call for negotiating membership in the customs union (which Norway doesn’t have), at least until the EU and UK could come up with a trade arrangement to guarantee an open border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member-state).

This was voted down 188-283 last week, but then the opposition Labour Party agreed to back the plan after some tweaks were made to the proposal. In the end, though, this wasn’t enough and it still failed, albeit in a much closer vote — 261 for and 282 against.

  • Second referendum

This option stipulates that any Brexit deal approved by Parliament has to go back to the public for a “confirmatory” vote. To be clear, it doesn’t say exactly what will be on the ballot, just that the public gets a say in the final deal. This got the most “yes” votes last week, with 268, but 295 people still voted against it. On Monday, the margin was a bit closer — with 280 voting in favor and 292 against. It still received the most “yes” votes of all the proposals.

  • If all else fails, revoke Article 50

This plan would seek an extension to Brexit, and if that doesn’t happen, requests the prime minister stop Brexit by revoking Article 50 if the Parliament can’t approve a deal before the Brexit deadline and agrees it does not want to leave the EU without a plan. (Article 50 is the mechanism in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that the UK is using to leave the bloc.) This plan lost 184-293 last week. It also fared pretty terribly on Monday, 191 to 292.

So what happens now? It’s a good question.

Parliament punted on its chance to direct the Brexit process. Now, the UK has to decide whether it will leave the European Union on April 12 without any deal in place, or seek a much longer extension.

A lot will depend on Prime Minister Theresa May, who lost another vote on her Brexit withdrawal agreement last Friday.

Monday’s indicative votes were nonbinding, so May was never obligated to agree to what Parliament decided. But the fact that MPs failed again to find a majority for a Brexit alternative is, strangely, a win for May. As she’s argued before, MPs have said what they don’t want — May’s Brexit deal and a no-deal Brexit — but they can’t agree on what they do want.

May is expected to hold a marathon Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, where her government will likely lay out next steps. May could also consider another vote — yes, really — on her Brexit deal. Some observers are speculating that she might be headed toward putting a motion forward for general elections, an attempt to break the political logjam by having the public decide who it wants in Parliament. Or, she may put forward a plan to seek a longer extension for Brexit, one that would require the UK to participate in European parliamentary election on May 23, something many MPs who represent pro-Leave constituencies are really reluctant to do.

The UK has to come up with an alternative plan before April 12, or risk leaving the EU without any deal at all. The UK’s economy will take a serious hit, with potentially major disruptions to trade, travel, and business. This is the outcome Parliament has said it wants to avoid at all costs. But time is quite literally running out.

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