Britain’s Parliament is set to vote on a series of Brexit options on Wednesday, throwing a wrench into Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit strategy and opening the door to the possibility that the country won’t leave the European Union at all.
In a rebuke of Ms. May, members of Parliament voted 329 to 302 on Monday to back a motion to wrest control of the Brexit agenda away from the Prime Minister. As a result, MPs will hold a series of non-binding “indicative votes” this week to test support for a range of alternatives to Ms. May’s Brexit deal with the EU.
The options are expected to include holding a second referendum, remaining in the EU customs union or revoking Brexit. Ms. May had opposed the motion and ordered her Conservative Party colleagues to vote against it. But 30 Tories voted with the opposition and three junior ministers resigned to back the motion.
The move injects more uncertainty into the Brexit process with only weeks to go before a new Brexit deadline of April 12. It isn’t clear whether MPs will be able to settle on an alternative to the withdrawal agreement that Ms. May reached with the EU last November.
The Prime Minister’s agreement has been rejected by Parliament twice but Ms. May had planned to try once more this week to get it approved. However, she conceded on Monday that she still doesn’t have enough support for the deal. Most of the opposition is coming from a group of Tory MPs and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs prop up Ms. May’s minority government. And there are few signs enough of them have changed their minds to get the deal through Parliament.
The coming indicative votes would give an indication as to what kind of Brexit plan Parliament would approve. Ms. May told MPs before Monday’s vote that she wasn’t keen on the idea. “I must confess that I am skeptical about such a process of indicative votes,” she told the House of Commons. “So I cannot commit the government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House. But I do commit to engaging constructively with this process.”
Ms. May also said that any new plan would have to be negotiated with the EU and that could take months and force Britain to participate in elections to the European Parliament in May.
That drew sharp criticism from many MPs who said the Prime Minister has failed with her deal and that it was time for Parliament to take over the Brexit process. “I would like to congratulate the House for taking control," Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “The government’s approach has been an abject failure and this House must now find a solution."
In a statement after the vote, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said the motion set a dangerous precedent.
“While it is now up to Parliament to set out next steps in respect of this [motion], the government will continue to call for realism – any options considered must be deliverable in negotiations with the EU," the statement said. "Parliament should take account of how long these negotiations would take, and if they’d require a longer extension, which would mean holding European parliamentary elections.”
Monday’s votes came as the EU made final preparations for a no-deal Brexit and said it was “increasingly likely” that Britain will crash out on April 12 without a deal. Last week the EU agreed to extend the Brexit deadline from March 29 to April 12, but with conditions. If Ms. May’s deal is approved by that day, Britain would officially leave on May 22, one day before the start of European parliamentary elections. If the deal is not approved by April 12, the country could leave without a deal or Ms. May could seek a longer extension and it would have to participate in the elections.
There were also signs on Monday that the Brexit uncertainty is having an impact on the economy. A quarterly survey of 84 financial-services firms by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and PricewaterhouseCoopers found that optimism, employment and business volumes are all falling fast. Just 10 per cent of those surveyed said they were more optimistic about the overall business situation compared with three months ago while 53 per cent said they were less optimistic, making a net difference of minus 43 per cent. That compared with a net difference of minus 24 per cent in the previous quarter and it’s the sharpest fall since 2008.
“The alarm bells ringing at the state of optimism in the financial-services sector have now reached a deafening level,” said Rain Newton-Smith, CBI’s chief economist. “Brexit is now a national emergency.”