May admitted that the agreement she brokered was “not perfect,” but she argued that the alternatives were worse. “With no deal, we would have no implementation period, no security cooperation, no guarantees for U.K. citizens overseas, no certainty for businesses and workers here in Stoke and across the U.K,” the prime minister said.
Then she wheeled on the growing calls for a second referendum that could scrap Brexit altogether. “With no Brexit … we would risk a subversion of the democratic process,” she argued.
But on Tuesday, Britain’s democratic process subverted May. The prime minister suffered the biggest rejection of any government in modern British history, with 432 lawmakers voting against the deal and only 202 supporting it. It was an epochal defeat, made all the more striking by the 118 members of May’s Conservative Party who sided against her in the House of Commons.
“The events in Parliament today are really quite remarkable,” said Cambridge University political historian Luke Blaxill to my colleagues. “This doesn’t happen.”
Though it seemed like a fateful moment, it was one long foretold. May’s plan satisfied neither the hard-line Brexiteers within her party — who view its various provisions, including keeping Britain tethered to Europe’s custom protocols, as too “soft” — nor anyone opposed to quitting the continental bloc. Why settle for a Brexit purgatory, they argued, when membership in Brussels remained clearly the better option?
So what can May do now? It might not matter.
“What Theresa May does now will become less and less relevant to what outcome we get,” Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, told The Post. “The key thing to be watching is what Parliament does next and what Labour does next.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, introduced a motion of no confidence in May that will be debated Wednesday. Much to the frustration of some in his own party, he has focused on toppling May and triggering a new general election rather than pushing for a second referendum. But forcing a new election seems unlikely: Many of the same Tories who voted against May’s deal are likely to cross back to their side of the aisle and vote in defense of the prime minister.
Still, after Tuesday’s staggering defeat, the way forward is hardly clear for May. “Her supporters say she will not resign, even [after] a crushing defeat,” my colleagues reported. “They suggest instead that May might return to Brussels, to seek new concessions over the controversial provisions over the Irish border — or even attempt to reopen negotiations.”
But European officials were quick to show a united front on Tuesday night, insisting they are not open to yet another round of talks. “I do not think that there are any new solutions being put on the table that have nothing to do with what has already been negotiated and agreed,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters at a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, suggested an alternative: End Brexit altogether.
This would be political dynamite. In the summer of 2016, the British public voted by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin to leave the European Union. Ever since, May and other leading politicians have insisted the government will respect that decision.
But critics hold up polls that now show that a majority of Britons prefer to “remain.” They point out that 1.4 million young people (a demographic that is overwhelmingly pro-E.U.) were not eligible to vote in 2016 but are eligible now. They cite other instances in Europe where countries staged successful second referendums. And they argue that the Brexit process has been a mortifying shambles, marked by the resignations of many of the “leave” camp’s chief proponents.
“The EU is a club, producing benefits that are directed primarily at its members,” observed Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute in an essay. “The idea that the Leave campaign sold to the voters was that the UK can be outside the club, no longer abiding by the club’s rules, and still enjoy a critical part of the club’s benefits.” But this was always a fantasy.
In the debate over Tuesday’s vote, Labour parliamentarian David Lammy took the floor and explained why he felt he had to confront pro-Brexit neighbors: “Why? Because we have a duty to tell our constituents the truth, even when they passionately disagree. Brexit is a con, a trick, a swindle, a fraud.”
Unless things change, Britain is set for a calamitous “no-deal” exit from the European Union on March 29. It is possible that both Brussels and the British government will seek to delay the process into the summer — a state of affairs that might only build momentum for a second referendum. But the political turmoil will not stop.
“Even if remain wins, the noise will go on. The Tory party may split, as it should, with the Brexit axis ready to raise mayhem,” wrote Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, pointing to Brexit hard-liners already stirring popular resentment. “Nigel Farage threatens a ‘people’s army,’ claiming dangerously that ‘parliament is against the people.’ Boris Johnson stirs conspiracy paranoia by warning the ‘deep state’ is blocking Brexit. Chris Grayling warns of no-Brexit unrest, near-as-dammit inciting riot. No kind of Brexit will ever be enough for them.”
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