“The implications of the House’s decision are grave,” Theresa May intoned after watching her Brexit deal with the EU fail in Parliament for the third time this month. The rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement — and a lack of any consensus on other alternatives — leaves the UK on a trajectory to just two outcomes. Either the British will crash out of the EU without a deal in two weeks, or they will have to participate in EU elections and postpone Brexit indefinitely:
JUST IN: British Parliament rejects Brexit withdrawal agreement for the third time. British Prime Minister Theresa May adds that "the implications of the House's decision are grave." https://t.co/QwzkYszrGQ pic.twitter.com/mwosCHja9t
— ABC News (@ABC) March 29, 2019
MPs have rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal for a third time, by 344 votes to 286, despite the prime minister’s offer to her Tory colleagues that she would resign if it passed.
A string of Brexit-backing Conservative backbenchers who had rejected the deal in the first two meaningful votes, including the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, switched sides during the debate, to support the agreement.
But with Labour unwilling to change its position, and the Democratic Unionist party’s 10 MPs determined not to support it, it was not enough to secure a majority for the prime minister.
May had pledged to resign if Parliament passed the Withdrawal Agreement, this time shorn of the political declaration of the future for British engagement with the EU. That would have left the next PM to negotiate that future and made the WA a stepping stone to a potentially far different Brexit than its first iteration. Now that May has lost that argument, Tory backbencher and ERG group deputy chair Steve Baker demanded her resignation anyway:
“This must be the final defeat for Theresa May’s deal.
“It has not passed. It will not pass. I regret to say it is time for Theresa May to follow through on her words and make way so that a new leader can deliver a withdrawal agreement which will be passed by parliament.”
Jeremy Corbyn had earlier scorned the deal as a “half-baked Brexit.” After the third disastrous vote concluded, the Labour leader called not only for May’s resignation but also a general election:
Jeremy Corbyn called on Mrs May to accept defeat, fall on her sword and allow a general election. “If the Prime Minister cannot accept that, she must go.”
That’s the ultimate end of this disaster for the Tories, but it won’t help matters now. An election would take at least a couple of months to organize in the UK, and they’re out of time as it is. In order to get past the April 12th deadline for Article 50, Parliament had to pass the WA. That would have given the UK until May 22nd to pass the accompanying legislation and prepare for the transition out of the EU, which will hold elections on May 23rd.
Now, however, the UK has two weeks before a crash-out. The only way to prevent that without the WA is to revoke Article 50 altogether and forego Brexit, or to negotiate an indefinite delay in its implementation. The latter will require unanimous EU approval, with harsh conditions likely imposed to acquire it. They will demand that the UK participates in EU elections and to recognize the authority of Brussels far past today’s original drop-dead date for EU sovereignty. It’s not possible to hold an election in the UK quickly enough to avoid one of those two outcomes.
The most likely of the two is now the crash-out, the EU commission declared shortly after the vote. EU Council president Donald Tusk signaled that the die has been cast:
In view of the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement by the House of Commons, I have decided to call a European Council on 10 April. #Brexit
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 29, 2019
And this from the EU Commission’s secretary-general sounds ominous, too:
12 April is now the new 29 March #Brexit
— Martin Selmayr (@MartinSelmayr) March 29, 2019
Markets reacted to the news with all of the enthusiasm for the pound sterling one would expect:
Pound falls through $1.30 (first time since March 11) as government loses Brexit vote by 58 votes, and Theresa May warns parliament is "reaching the limits of the process" 💷📉 https://t.co/GRS8nsCPHv pic.twitter.com/OF0epe07PQ
— Graeme Wearden (@graemewearden) March 29, 2019
Of course, May could try to resurrect the WA for a fourth vote, but that seems just as pointless as calling a general election to resolve the acute crisis. May isn’t making the sale even with her own party, let alone the ten DUP MPs whose signals on Northern Ireland perspective carry significant weight in her caucus. Commons speaker John Bercow almost certainly would stop any such attempt, but it’s futile regardless.
Or is it? There are hints that May’s looking to frame a fourth vote — or rather, a “meaningful third vote” — around the distillation of the “indicative votes” process that will come on Monday. That’s called the Letwin process, in which Bercow will select the best-performing ideas from the indicative votes earlier this week. May could set it up as a runoff against the WA, or so the government hopes (via the Guardian):
Sense from chats here is that May will watch the outcome of Letwin process on Monday; then have one more try with MV3 [no really] essentially pitting it against Letwin.
If she lost again, she'd have to request a long extension – and then potentially call a general election?
— Heather Stewart (@GuardianHeather) March 29, 2019
"It's going in the right direction" – gvt source
Looks like there could be a run-off next week between MV3 and whatever the Letwin process produces
— Sam Coates Times (@SamCoatesTimes) March 29, 2019
May had better hope that works, or that the process produces some arrangement with a practical chance of getting implemented within days. Absent any coherent action from Parliament in the next fourteen days, the UK will go off the crash-out cliff. Everyone will pay for May’s failure in that scenario whether May sticks around or not.
Update: At least for now, the EU does not want to pull any of May’s chestnuts out of the fire:
The commission regrets the negative vote in the House of Commons today. As per the European council (Article 50) decision on 22 March, the period provided for in article 50(3) is extended to 12 April. It will be for the UK to indicate the way forward before that date, for consideration by the European council.
A “no-deal” scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario. The EU has been preparing for this since December 2017 and is now fully prepared for a “no-deal” scenario at midnight on 12 April. The EU will remain united. The benefits of the withdrawal agreement, including a transition period, will in no circumstances be replicated in a “no-deal” scenario. Sectoral mini-deals are not an option.
Andrew Sparrow explains what the last two sentences mean:
The final two sentences refer to a claim often made by Brexiters at Westminster that, in the event of a no-deal, the UK and the EU would in practice negotiate a series of mini-agreements to mitigate the worst consequences. This is sometimes referred to as a managed no-deal.
Translation: We’re not coming to your rescue. That could change as the consequences of a crash-out come closer, but for the moment the EU is talking tough.