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Britain’s Parliament Seizes Brexit Agenda, But Impasse Unlikely to End

Anti-Brexit protesters hold onto their flags and placards as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, March 26, 2019.

Britain’s beleaguered Theresa May gathered her ministers Tuesday for yet another emergency Cabinet meeting as the House of Commons upended centuries of constitutional practice and seized control of parliamentary business from the government in a bid to end the long-running Brexit impasse.

A series of "indicative votes" planned for Wednesday in the House of Commons, however, may fail to find a solution and plunge Britain deeper into political chaos, according to analysts.

Some lawmakers worry the votes to try to find consensus among MPs on what type of deal they want with the European Union may end up revealing there is no workable consensus.

That would would delay Britain’s exit from the European Union, which is now set for either April 12 or May 22, for possibly a year or longer.

Sharp divisions

May’s Cabinet is hopelessly divided between hardline Brexiters and pro-EU Remainers, as is her ruling Conservative party as a whole. The ministers war-gamed various scenarios Tuesday for an election should MPs impose a Brexit solution the government can’t support.

“A snap general election is becoming more likely,” said Conservative lawmaker John Baron.

The indicative votes, probably to be held on Wednesday, will explore a series of Brexit options likely to include whether to leave the European Union without a deal, May’s contentious withdrawal deal that has been twice rejected by the Commons, a Norway-style deal that would keep Britain in the EU single market and customs union but not as a full EU member, holding a second Brexit referendum for the public to decide, or just revoking Britain’s application to leave the bloc.

Theresa May tried to stop the power grab by the Commons, but was defeated Monday in a parliamentary vote that saw 30 Conservatives vote against her and three ministers resign. She warned parliament’s move, which had the backing of opposition parties, “upends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous, unpredictable precedent for the future.”

One of the ministers, Alastair Burt, quit so he could vote for the House of Commons to seize control. Until recently he was seen as a May loyalist.

He said in his resignation letter, “We are running out of time... the risk of leaving without a deal, and continuing serious and disruptive uncertainty is affecting the UK profoundly. Parliament should seek urgently to resolve the situation by considering alternatives freely, without the instruction of party whips, and government should adopt any feasible outcome as its own in order to progress matters.”

Indicative votes are a series of non-binding resolutions and are a way of testing the will of the House of Commons on different options related to a single issue.

More drama likely

Even if the House of Commons finds there is a majority on a Brexit option, the saga won’t end there. May has insisted she won’t necessarily deliver on what the Commons votes for, which will prompt another standoff between the government and Parliament.

Backers of holding indicative votes have warned they won’t tolerate the results being shunned by the government.

“If, ultimately, the government refuses to listen to what parliament has voted for, then we will look to bring forward a bill, pass an Act of Parliament that will require the government to reflect parliament's wishes,” said Nick Boles, a Conservative rebel who wants a so-called soft Brexit with Britain closely aligned with the bloc.

In Brussels there was tentative welcoming of Parliament seizing the initiative. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said indicative voting would be an “opportunity to build cross-party cooperation.” He hoped it would result in negotiating changes.

With British politics in meltdown, May’s days in office appear increasingly numbered, say analysts.

More than a dozen Cabinet ministers and a swathe of her own backbench Conservative lawmakers have urged her to quit. They want a caretaker prime minister to be installed to test different exit strategies. But even the skittish plot to oust her fell apart Sunday, the victim of infighting in the Cabinet over who should replace her.