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World Brexit uncertainty remains as British Parliament rejects May’s deal for second time

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to lawmakers in the House of Commons, in London, on March 12, 2019.

JESSICA TAYLOR/The Associated Press

Britain’s turmoil over Brexit has intensified after parliamentarians rejected a withdrawal agreement with the European Union for the second time, plunging the country into chaos less than three weeks before it is set to leave the EU.

Members of Parliament voted 391 to 242 against the deal on Tuesday, handing Prime Minister Theresa May a humiliating rejection of the revised version of an agreement that was voted down in January. The result opened the door to delaying the U.K.'s planned departure from the European Union, revoking it or holding a second national referendum.

Tuesday’s vote was a crushing rebuke of Ms. May’s Brexit strategy. Not only did nearly one quarter of her fellow Conservatives join opposition MPs in voting against the deal, Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox offered a legal opinion on the revisions just before the vote, essentially concluding that the changes did not resolve the key issues raised by critics. Mr. Cox’s conclusions led many Tories to vote against the deal.

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Opinion: Theresa May’s failure to lead

Sounding hoarse from 24 hours of negotiations with EU officials, Ms. May told MPs after the vote that she still believed the defeated agreement was the “best and indeed the only deal available.” She acknowledged that the way forward was uncertain and that MPs will now have to decide what comes next. “This is an issue of grave importance for the future of our country,” she said.

Theresa May’s Brexit timetable

New meaningful vote

PASS

FAIL

Vote on blocking no deal

FAIL

PASS

Vote on delaying Brexit (extending Article 50)

FAIL

PASS

Brexit with a deal

Brexit without a deal

PM will need to request an extension from the EU

Seven options

Further vote on PM’s deal

Referendum

No Brexit

Vote of no confidence

No deal

Renegotiation

Election

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: BBC

Theresa May’s Brexit timetable

New meaningful vote

PASS

FAIL

Vote on blocking no deal

FAIL

PASS

Vote on delaying Brexit (extending Article 50)

FAIL

PASS

Brexit with a deal

Brexit without a deal

PM will need to request an extension from the EU

Seven options

Further vote on PM’s deal

Referendum

No Brexit

Vote of no confidence

No deal

Renegotiation

Election

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: BBC

Theresa May’s Brexit timetable

New meaningful vote

PASS

FAIL

Vote on blocking no deal

FAIL

PASS

Vote on delaying Brexit (extending Article 50)

FAIL

PASS

Brexit with a deal

Brexit without a deal

PM will need to request an extension from the EU

Seven options

Further vote on PM’s deal

Referendum

No Brexit

Vote of no confidence

No deal

Renegotiation

Election

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: BBC

On Wednesday, MPs will vote on whether to leave the EU as scheduled on March 29 without an agreement. If that is ruled out as expected, MPs will vote on Thursday on a motion to seek an extension to the deadline. However, the EU must agree, and it is not clear the bloc sees any value in a delay. “Voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems we face,” Ms. May warned. The EU would want an explanation for the delay, she added, and MPs would have to decide if they want to push for a second referendum, revoke Brexit or continue to negotiate a deal. “These are unenviable choices, but thanks to the decision the House has made this evening, they must now be faced,” she said.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said on Tuesday that the bloc had done “everything it can to help get the withdrawal agreement over the line.” He added that it was up to Britain to find a solution. "The impasse can only be solved in the U.K. Our ‘no-deal’ preparations are now more important than ever before,” he said.

The EU accounts for nearly half of the U.K.’s imports and exports, and many business leaders worry about the impact of leaving without arrangements for border controls, banking, transportation links and a host of other issues. The uncertainty has already begun to take a toll on the economy. Figures released on Tuesday showed that economic growth has stalled and business investment has virtually dried up. Several major companies, including Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., have announced plans to scale back operations in the U.K. because of Brexit. “Enough is enough,” Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said on Twitter after the vote. “A new approach needed.”

Finding a way out of the Brexit impasse looks virtually impossible, said Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester. “There’s just multiple credibility problems now,” he said. “The EU doesn’t see what they can credibly do to get the government over the line. The Prime Minister isn’t credible with her own MPs. Those proposing alternative [Brexit] plans can’t credibly point to a majority in Parliament either.”

The defeat has badly damaged Ms. May’s authority. She managed to win a vote of confidence in her leadership in December in a poll among fellow Conservative MPs, but one third of the caucus voted against her. “While Theresa May has cultivated a reputation as a survivor, it is clear to all that Brexit is proving too formidable an opponent,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics and international relations at Rutherford College in Canterbury. “Her Conservative rivals are openly jockeying for position, while her Conservative voters are visibly disillusioned with the direction in which she is taking them.”

Ms. May’s biggest problem has been an inability to resolve how to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit. The U.K. and EU have both committed to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence on the island and removed all border controls.

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The withdrawal agreement included a backstop that served as a guarantee the border would remain open by tying Northern Ireland to EU rules and keeping the rest of the U.K. in a custom arrangement with the bloc to allow the free movement of goods. The backstop was to stay in place until the U.K. and EU negotiated a comprehensive trade deal. But many Tory MPs and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up Ms. May’s minority government, said the backstop could trap the U.K. within the EU for years. They wanted a time limit, and a provision that would permit the U.K. to unilaterally withdraw from it. The EU refused to alter the text of the agreement. Ms. May managed to win side arrangements that she said reduced the risk of being trapped, and allowed the country to pull out in some circumstances.

Ms. May is expected to head back to Brussels next week to try to salvage the deal.

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