Ready to leave: Pro-Brexit protesters make their point in London on March 29
MPs rejecting prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal for a third time today have left in doubt Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union on the very day it was supposed to quit the bloc.
The decision to reject a stripped-down version of the prime minister’s divorce deal has left it totally unclear how, when or even whether Britain will leave the EU, and plunges the three-year Brexit crisis to a deeper level of uncertainty.
“I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House,” the prime minister told parliament after the defeat. “The implications of the House’s decision are grave.”
Within minutes of the vote, European Council president and summit chair Donald Tusk said EU leaders would meet on April 10 to discuss Britain’s departure from the bloc.
A succession of European leaders said there was a very real chance Britain would now leave without a deal, a scenario that businesses fear would cause chaos for the world’s fifth-biggest economy.
The prime minister had framed the vote as the last opportunity to ensure Britain actually left the EU, making a passionate plea to MPs to put aside party differences and strongly-held beliefs.
But in a special sitting of parliament, they voted 344-286 against the EU Withdrawal Agreement, agreed after two years of tortuous negotiations with the bloc.
“The legal default now is that the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on April 12,” the prime minister said.
She cautioned that any further delay to Brexit would probably be a long one beyond the current deadline and would mean Britain holding elections to the European Parliament.
The British pound, which has been buoyed in recent weeks by hopes that the likelihood of an abrupt ‘no-deal’ Brexit is receding, fell half a percent after May lost, to as low as $1.2977, but then recovered some of its losses.
The vote leaves the prime minister’s Brexit strategy in tatters. With no majority in parliament for any Brexit option so far, it is unclear what she will now do. Options include asking the EU for a long delay, parliament forcing an election, or a “no-deal” exit.
However, the prime minister’s spokesman said she would continue talks with opponents of the deal and some political correspondents said she could bring it back a fourth time, perhaps in a “run-off” against any alternative that parliament itself came up with.
Britain now has under two weeks to convince the 27 capitals of the EU that it has an alternative path out of the impasse or see itself cast out of the bloc on April 12 with no deal on post-Brexit ties with its largest trading ally.
French president Emmanuel Macron, speaking as parliament voted, said the EU needed to accelerate no-deal planning and Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that unless Britain came up with a plan, there would be a “hard” Brexit.
“The risk of a no-deal Brexit is very real,” Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte told reporters.
Many UK MPs believe the only way to solve the crisis will be a snap election – even though it would throw up a host of unknowns for the major parties.
“The last thing this country needs right now is a general election,” transport minister Chris Grayling told Sky News. “We’ve actually got to sort out the Brexit process, we can’t throw everything up in the air.”
“What should have been a celebration is in fact a day of betrayal,” Nigel Farage, a leading Brexit campaigner, said.