Britain has fallen deeper into chaos after parliamentarians rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union for a third time and set the country on a course to crash out of the bloc next month.
Members of Parliament once again voted against the agreement on Friday, 344 to 286, a wider margin than many expected and a sign that Ms. May’s Brexit strategy – and her hold on power – may have finally run its course.
All eyes will be on the House of Commons on Monday when MPs will vote on alternative options, such as revoking Brexit or negotiating a customs union with the EU. But so far, MPs have been unable to agree on any alternative, and Britain is due to leave the bloc on April 12.
“The implications of the House’s decision are grave,” Ms. May told MPs after Friday’s vote. “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.”
Ms. May said she would “continue to press the case” for an orderly Brexit, a hint that she may yet try to salvage the agreement. But Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn said Parliament had been clear and that an alternative must be found." And if the Prime Minister can’t accept that, then she must go,” he added, calling for an election.
Ms. May could try to delay Brexit further. Under a deal she struck with EU leaders last week, she can seek an extension but will have to do it before April 12 and must have a good reason. Any delay would likely be for months and would force the U.K. to participate in elections to the European Parliament, which start May 23, something the Prime Minister has adamantly opposed.
EU officials said they regretted Friday’s vote but added that it was up to the U.K. to find a way forward. “A ‘no-deal’ scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario,” they said.
The U.K. was initially supposed to leave the EU on March 29, and thousands of people filled a square outside Parliament Friday to voice their anger that the country still hadn’t left. Many had walked 450 kilometres from Sunderland in what they called a “March to Leave.” They arrived at Westminster led by bands, floats and buses carrying signs that read, “No Deal No Problem.”
"The anger is palpable – people are absolutely fed up with it,” said Martin Dew, a 54-year-old freelance writer, said as he entered the square. He was hoping that Ms. May’s agreement is finally dead and that the country can leave the EU on April 12 and trade under World Trade Organization rules. “We don’t believe any of the other options are going to work. We’re just setting our sights on leaving with no deal,” he said.
Standing not far away, archaeologist Alexander Edmonds said he joined the march to defend democracy and the result of the 2016 referendum, which saw 52 per cent of voters opt to leave. “If we don’t leave, then people aren’t really going to trust democracy very much in our nation any more,” he said. “Quite frankly, a single second longer [in the EU] is an insult to the democratic process.” He added that his 29th birthday was on Thursday and he wanted it to be a celebration of the country’s last day in the EUEuropean Union. “But not quite, I’m afraid,” he said with a laugh. "I do hope that by the time I hit 30 we’re definitely out.”
Business groups, too, were furious. “The Brexit merry-go-round continues to spin, but the fun stopped a long time ago,” said Edwin Morgan of the Institute of Directors, one of the U.K.’s largest business organizations. “We are running out of words to express how sick business leaders are of being stuck in this spirit-sapping limbo. The inability to make any decision is doing lasting damage to enterprise.”
Many people inside Parliament and at the rally blame Ms. May for the Brexit chaos, and her political future is in question. On Wednesday, she offered to resign if the agreement was approved. That was seen as a sop to a group of her fellow Conservative Party MPs who have bitterly opposed her deal and want a new leader to take over. While that was enough for some rebels, including former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a total of 34 Tory MPs still defied her and voted against the agreement. Ms. May gave no hint of her future on Friday, but few MPs believe she can carry on much longer as Prime Minister. “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,” said a statement from Tory MP Steve Baker, who is part of the rebel group. “This has been a tragic waste of time and energy for the country. We can waste no more.”
Ms. May has also been abandoned by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs prop up her minority government. She has spent months trying to win over the DUP and address their concerns about the agreement. But the party also refused to stick by her on Friday. "Regretfully, the fact remains that sufficient progress has not been made,” said Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader in Westminster, said.
Ms. May had also been hoping that her decision to hold a vote only on the 600-page withdrawal agreement, which is one part of her overall Brexit deal, would have been enough to sway Labour MPs and offset the DUP and Tory rebels. Most Labour MPs don’t have a problem with the withdrawal agreement and are more focused on the other part of the deal: the 27-page political declaration that sets out a framework for discussions between the U.K. and the EU on their future relationship. But on Friday, just five Labour MPs backed her.