Britain faces Brexit chaos and delay after Theresa May’s humiliating defeat in UK parliament

  • Britain’s lawmakers reject Theresa May's Brexit deal, putting EU withdrawal timetable in doubt
  • The scale of defeat, by a majority of 230, was greater than any seen in the past century
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2019, 4:15pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2019, 11:28pm

Britain was ensnared its deepest political crisis in half a century after UK lawmakers defeated Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit divorce deal with Europe by a crushing margin.

May suffered the largest government defeat in modern British history Tuesday when the House of Commons rejected by 432 votes to 202 the withdrawal agreement she struck with Brussels late last year.

With the clock ticking down to March 29, the date set in law for Brexit, the United Kingdom must grapple with how, or even whether, to exit the European project that it joined in 1973.

The EU immediately warned that Tuesday’s vote raised the risk of a hugely disruptive “no deal” Brexit where Britain could sever ties with its biggest trading partner overnight.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker urged London to “clarify its intentions as soon as possible”, warning: “time is almost up”.

Ireland, the only EU member state with a land border with Britain, said it would now intensify preparations for a “disorderly Brexit”.

May struck a conciliatory tone after Tuesday’s vote, promising cross-party talks to try and salvage a workable Brexit deal before returning with a new plan next Monday.

She also gave a heavy hint that she won’t allow the UK to fall out of the EU with no deal.

“I have always believed that the best way forward is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal and have devoted much of the last two years negotiating such a deal,” she said.

She was expected to win a vote of no confidence, scheduled for early Thursday morning Hong Kong time.

It was tabled by opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who wants to force a general election.

While her own Conservative MPs and her allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have led the charge against her Brexit deal, they do not want a Labour government.

Britain’s newspapers were withering at the scale of May’s defeat, a damning verdict on 18 months of negotiations with the EU.

What next for Brexit? Rocks and hard places abound as Britain faces three main scenarios, in wake of deal’s defeat

The top-selling Sun tabloid said May was “crushed”, while the Daily Mail said her power was left “hanging by a thread”, and one commentator in The Times described her as a “zombie prime minister”.

Most lawmakers – including May – opposed Brexit ahead of the 2016 referendum, which has caused bitter divisions across the island nation.

Nearly three years later, they still cannot decide what to do, with MPs criticising May’s deal both for keeping Britain too closely tied to the EU, and for not keeping it closer.

May’s spokesman told reporters that May’s deal could still form the basis of an accord with the EU, but opponents disagreed.

“This deal is dead,” said Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party’s most prominent Brexiteer, who urged May to go back to Brussels to seek better terms.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose small party props up May’s government in the Commons, called for “fundamental change” to the Brexit deal.

But, speaking ahead of Tuesday’s vote, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas ruled out any substantial changes to the withdrawal agreement – a message reinforced by Juncker.

“It is the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union,” Juncker said.

After the defeat, French President Emmanuel Macron said “the pressure” was mainly on Britain to find a solution.

A chaotic no-deal departure could have harsh economic and humanitarian consequences for both sides and some countries’ legislatures are halting ordinary business to pick up emergency laws to prepare.

Here is British PM Theresa May’s statement to parliament, in full, following her crushing Brexit deal defeat

EU policymakers and negotiators said they saw little they could do to try to ease any deal through the British parliament.

And at least one prominent voice suggested Britain might reconsider its divorce effort altogether.

“If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted.

Speculation is also growing on both sides of the Channel that May could ask to delay Brexit, although she denies this.

The movement for a second Brexit referendum has been gaining strength in Britain. But the path to getting there remains long and complicated.

In any event, Britain may be forced to ask for extra time to work out its problems, and the March 29 departure date may no longer be realistic.

An extension would require unanimous consent from the remaining EU countries.

“While there is no point in reopening negations, we need to do everything else to avoid a hard #Brexit,” tweeted the head of German Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Norbert Rottgen.

“If vote is given back to people, UK should get more time.”

The pound edged down but mostly held its ground as investors consider the next likely developments in the long-running Brexit saga.

The sterling tanked to a near two-year low soon after the government’s proposal on leaving the European Union was soundly beaten Tuesday evening, but it soon bounced back as traders bet there would not be a “no-deal” exit.

Agence France-Presse, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Reuters