British lawmakers seized a measure of control over the stalled Brexit process from Prime Minister Theresa May’s foundering government Monday, setting up a series of votes that could dramatically alter the course of the U.K.’s departure from the European Union.
The move came after May conceded that Parliament would defeat her twice-rejected divorce deal with the EU again if she put it to a third vote.
With Brexit delayed and the new departure date up in the air, the House of Commons voted to give itself control of the parliamentary timetable starting Wednesday so lawmakers can vote on alternatives to May’s withdrawal deal. The government usually controls the scheduling of votes in Parliament.
Lawmakers who backed Monday’s motion, which passed 329-302, hope the planned “indicative votes” will narrow the options down to one that can secure majority support. Possible options include a “soft Brexit” that maintains close economic ties with the EU or scrapping Britain’s departure altogether.
Several government ministers quit their posts so they could back the motion. The government opposed the measure, claiming it “upends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous, unpredictable precedent for the future.”
Brexit is like the Death Star of politics.– Conservative MP George Freeman
But it also conceded that the new votes might be a way to break the months-long Brexit impasse. May said she would “engage constructively” with the results of the process, though she said she was skeptical that it would produce a decisive result.
Earlier in the day, May acknowledged, “with great regret,” that her deal still lacked “sufficient support” to be approved.
She said she hoped to hold a third vote on the agreement later this week and was working to build support for the deal, which sets out the terms of withdrawing from the EU and the outline of future relations with the bloc.
May warned opponents that continuing to reject the deal her government negotiated last year could lead to a “slow Brexit” that postpones the country’s departure indefinitely.
With the March 29 Brexit day set almost two years ago now just days away, and the withdrawal agreement lacking Parliament’s approval, European leaders agreed to a postponement last week to avoid a chaotic cliff-edge departure. There is wide concern that Britain leaving without a deal would be disruptive for the world’s biggest trading bloc and deeply damaging for its ex-member country.
However, the EU granted a shorter delay than May sought. It said if Parliament approves the proposed divorce deal, the U.K. would leave the EU on May 22. If not, the government has until April 12 to tell the 27 remaining EU countries what it plans to do — leave without a deal, cancel Brexit or chart a path to a new option.
In agreeing to the postponement, European leaders hoped Britain’s deadlocked politicians would find a solution to the crisis. But the EU isn’t counting on it. The European Commission said Monday it had completed planning for a no-deal Brexit, calling that outcome “increasingly likely.”
May under pressure to quit
May stands little chance of getting the deal she struck with the EU approved unless she can win over Brexit-backing lawmakers in her Conservative Party and its Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP said Monday that its “position remains unchanged.”
May has come under intense pressure to quit the prime minister’s post as the price of winning support for the deal.
At a meeting Sunday at the prime minister’s country retreat, Chequers, prominent Brexiteers told May they might back the deal — if she agreed to step down so a new leader could take charge of the next phase of negotiations, which deals with Britain’s future relations with the EU.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who attended the meeting and is likely to be a contender in any future Conservative leadership race, accused the government of lacking “gumption” and chickening out on delivering Brexit.
Britain’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun, put a call on its front page for the prime minister to resign under the headline “Time’s up, Theresa.”
May is hanging on, hoping she can persuade Brexit-backing lawmakers that rejecting her deal means Britain may never leave the EU.
She told lawmakers that Britain would not leave the EU without a deal unless Parliament — which has already rejected the idea — voted for it.
Hundreds of thousands march
She added that cancelling Brexit “must not happen,” while “a slow Brexit” that involved a long delay to Britain’s departure, “is not a Brexit that will bring the British people together.”
Opponents of Brexit feel the political tide may be turning in their favor. Hundreds of thousands of people marched through London on Saturday calling for a new referendum on whether to leave the EU or remain.
But with the deadline for a Brexit decision less than three weeks away, British politicians remain divided, and increasingly despairing about the country’s political gridlock.
“Brexit is like the Death Star of politics,” Conservative legislator George Freeman said. “I always feared it would be like this. It’s destroying and soaking up all the prime minister’s room for manoeuvre and political goodwill.
“I’ve never known this country so divided, so angry and in such a dangerous state,” he said.
The European Union also said that more remained to be done on ensuring an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland — something both sides have agreed to. Checkpoints there were a source of tension and a target during the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland until the Good Friday peace agreement was sealed in 1998.
An EU official said the bloc was in “in intense discussions with the Irish authorities about these matters.”
May survived a vote on her leadership in December, and told the party she would not lead them into the next election.
The United Kingdom voted 52-48 per cent to leave the EU in the referendum.
This story originally appeared on CBC