Britons desperately wanting some clarity in the country’s interminable Brexit saga were disappointed Wednesday when lawmakers plunged the country’s proposed exit from the European Union, after half-a-century of membership, into further disarray, failing to find a majority for any way forward after a series of so-called indicative votes.
The hope had been a majority might emerge from the eight different options they voted on, which included staying in the EU, leaving with no withdrawal agreement, remaining in the bloc’s customs union and/or single market or holding a second Brexit referendum.
“Parliament Finally Has Its Say: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.” Britain’s Guardian newspaper announced on its front-page Thursday.
“In summary: the Commons has now overwhelmingly rejected every single type of Brexit, and no Brexit,” tweeted Michel Deacon, the Daily Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch-writer. The option of leaving without a deal was defeated by a huge margin. So, too, was a motion that would see Brexit cancelled altogether.
It wasn’t what the organizers of the indicative votes in the House of Commons had hoped would be the upshot. Backed by the opposition parties and pro-EU Conservative rebels they seized control of the parliamentary agenda from the government, the first time in 140 years that Downing Street hasn’t called the shots on what can be debated and when on the floor of the House of Commons.
“This is going well. Putting the Commons in charge was clearly a brilliant idea,” tweeted Andrew Neil, the arch-Brexiter presenter of a BBC politics show. The EU's chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker said Britain's intentions had become more mysterious than those of the mythological sphinxes guarding ancient tombs.
To add to the confusion in London, just before the indicative voting, an exhausted Prime Minister Theresa May told her Conservative lawmakers she would relinquish the party leadership and resign as prime minister, but only if her contentious Brexit withdrawal agreement, which parliament has twice rejected, is passed.
May’s announcement was a last-ditch bid to persuade Conservative Brexiters to back her withdrawal agreement, a deal they disapprove of because it would keep Britain closely aligned with the European Union and obedient to its rules while a longer-term trade relationship is negotiated.
A hardcore of Conservative Eurosceptics and ten lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who May has to rely on because her government is a minority one, have adamantly refused to back her deal. They say the plan poses a risk to the integrity of the union of the United Kingdom. The DUP believes if it took effect, it would cause trade differences between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and create in effect a “border down the Irish Sea.”
There were no signs Thursday that May will be able to persuade enough holdouts to vote for her deal, if it is put before the Commons for a third time, leaving Britain on course to crash out of the EU without a deal on April 12, unless the British government requests, for the second time, a Brexit postponement.
EU negotiators have indicated they might be open to another delay, but only if it is a lengthy one of a year or more.
It remains unclear how the political deadlock in London can be broken. The idea of leaving without a transition deal has strong opposition in the Commons and would likely be blocked by a majority of lawmakers.
Frustration on EU side
EU negotiators, out of exasperation, could decide to raise the stakes and decline another Brexit postponement, hoping to force the Commons to stop Brexit altogether, say some analysts. But it is unlikely they would risk such a high stakes gamble, fearing that might push Britain into crashing out by accident as much as by design.
European Council President, Donald Tusk, said last week in Brussels that the European Union will work with Britain for as long as it takes and on Wednesday he urged European lawmakers to be open to a long delay in Britain’s departure.
That leaves Britain trapped — paralyzed by a deadlocked House of Commons, itself a reflection of a country split down the middle over staying a member of the EU or quitting. With all avenues seemingly leading to dead-ends, there is more talk now in the British parliament of the need to hold an general election, hoping that returns a parliament that is not so undecided.
Behind-the-scenes Cabinet ministers and Conservative party officials are war-gaming calling an election three years ahead of schedule. David Davies, a pro-Brexit Conservative MP who quit as Brexit minister, says “a general election is a lot more likely now.” He added: “I don't say it's going to happen, but clearly if a government can't get through on the one issue which we were really elected to deal with at the last election it puts us all in a very difficult situation.”
The problem in calling a snap election is the British public doesn’t want another one so soon after the Conservatives called another early poll two years ago, according to opinion surveys, with just 12 percent backing the idea.
The other problem for the Conservatives is that they would be fighting an election with a leader who has announced she intends to step down soon and heading a party that’s even more deeply and rancorously divided than the main opposition Labour party.
In the division lobbies on Wednesday some Conservative lawmakers on different sides of the Brexit question were spotted cursing each other and one clash prompted the intervention of colleagues, who feared a brawl might break out.
Commons in charge
Organizers of Wednesday’s indicative voting are placing some hopes that the Commons can still break the deadlock. They say clarity could be reached on Monday when lawmakers are due for another session of indicative voting, this time on the options that attracted the most support.
Labour's Stephen Doughty said they never expected the votes on Wednesday to reveal a majority for one option. The whole idea was to narrow down the alternatives that have the most support and for parliament then to reconsider.
The two closest votes Wednesday were for staying in the EU’s customs union and another for a second referendum confirming any Brexit departure. Both attracted more votes than May’s deal has got the two occasions it was voted on in parliament. Campaigners for a second referendum appear buoyed.
They believe Britons have shifted their attitudes on Brexit since the 2016 referendum, pointing to a new polling study by veteran pollster John Curtice, which indicates voters are becoming increasingly doubtful about Brexit. The study suggests two and half years after the plebiscite, leaving the European Union may not now reflect majority thinking.