The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brexit: Parliament rejects soft Brexit, second referendum

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves from the rear of 10 Downing Street on Monday. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — British lawmakers, who have earned a global reputation for voting no on everything Brexit, failed again to muster a majority Monday for any of four possible ways forward.

They rejected two proposals for a “soft Brexit.” They also declined to back a second referendum or cancel Brexit.

The process of staging “indicative votes” was supposed to give the House of Commons control. Instead, Parliament tried to seize the steering wheel from Prime Minister Theresa May — and drove the car into the ditch.

House Speaker John Bercow was asked by the chamber what would happen next.

“I can’t say with any confidence what will happen, and, in that respect, I think I’m frankly not in a minority,” said the loquacious keeper of order.

Votes on four possible ways forward failed in Britain's House of Commons on April 1, after which Conservative Party Whip Nick Boles announced his resignation. (Video: AP)

The focus now turns back again to May and whether she will put her own thrice-rejected Brexit deal to a fourth vote.

The British political class is facing stark choices as the clock ticks. If Parliament now does not back May’s deal, it means that Britain will need to seek a long delay for Brexit or crash out with no deal at all.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, tweeted after the votes that “the U.K. has a last chance to break the deadlock or face the abyss.”

Richard Drax, a member of Britain's Parliament from the Conservative Party, spoke April 1, saying, "Spring is here ... Time for a new start for us all." (Video: Reuters)

Britain has nine days — until European leaders meet at an emergency summit in Brussels — to decide how it wants to proceed.

Monday’s votes were all nonbinding, and, although all failed, several were tight.

The closest margin was for a compromise Brexit involving a new customs union with the European Union, failing by three votes. The proposal to require a public vote before any Brexit deal could be ratified lost by 12. Meanwhile, a proposal for a Norway-like relationship stumbled by 21. The fourth motion, seeking to effectively cancel Brexit, failed by more than a hundred ballots.

Afterward, Nick Boles, the lawmaker pushing for the Norway-like soft Brexit, told Parliament that he was resigning as a member of the Conservative Party. 

“I accept I have failed,” Boles said, his voice breaking, as fellow Tories shouted out, “Don’t do it, Nick!”

“I have failed, chiefly, because my party refuses to compromise,” Boles said. “I regret therefore to announce that I can no longer sit for this party.”

Kenneth Clarke, a senior Conservative lawmaker who had proposed the customs-union alternative, said, “I sometimes think that this particular Parliament that I find myself sitting in is not very political at the moment and it is confounding the general public.”

Stephen Barclay, Britain’s ­Brexit secretary, told the chamber that the best way forward was to support May’s unloved withdrawal agreement.

“If the House were to agree a deal this week, it may still be possible to avoid holding European parliamentary elections,” which are held in May, Barclay said. “Cabinet will meet in the morning to consider the results of tonight’s vote and how we should proceed.”

The continued sense of drift down a river toward a waterfall, heard looming in the distance, comes amid signs that the British prime minister has lost control of Brexit, her party and her cabinet.

The Conservative Party is in open revolt. Over the weekend, a bloc of 170 Conservative members, including 10 cabinet ministers, wrote to May demanding that Britain leave the E.U. “with or without a deal,” according to the Sunday Times of London.

Her cabinet, meanwhile, is now staffed by coup plotters and direct competitors. Hard-line ­Brexiteers and those ministers pushing for a softer Brexit are both threatening to resign if they do not get their way.

The government secretaries have become so unruly that May’s chief whip, Julian Smith, in a rare on-the-record interview with the BBC, described them as the “worst example of ill discipline in cabinet in British political history.”

Smith’s statement was remarkable not only for what he said — but for who said it. 

Chief whips are supposed to be like Victorian children in the extreme, never seen nor heard. They are virtually invisible to the world outside the Palace of Westminster, and their one and only job is to enforce party discipline — in other words, to “whip” their members, via text and WhatsApp group, to vote one way or another.

Smith also said that after the results of the 2017 general election, when the Conservative Party dramatically lost its parliamentary majority, May should have been clear that the result would spell a softer kind of Brexit.

Instead, May made bold speeches and erected red lines.

And yet, May still could get her deal passed. Her supporters say it is likely that the prime minister will try a fourth time to get it through the House of Commons.

Why would lawmakers approve on a fourth vote that which they have rejected three times before? May’s latest threat: If her Conservative members don’t rally around her deal, she will call for a general election.

This appears an empty threat by a weakened party leader, in part because the latest opinion surveys show the opposition Labour Party polling nearly even with the Tories — despite Labour being equally divided between “leavers” and “remainers.” In that environment, it is hard to see Conservatives helping to provide the two-thirds majority required for a general election.

Last week, May said she would step down if her deal finally, somehow, gets over the finish line, thus allowing someone else to take the reins in the second phase of Brexit negotiations with the E.U. May could be replaced as leader of the government by her party without the need for a general election. 

In no time at all, Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and a favorite to replace May as Conservative leader, dropped his opposition and backed May’s deal.

“We need to get Brexit done, because we have so much more to do, and so much more that unites the Conservative party than divides us,” Johnson wrote in Monday’s Daily Telegraph, which sounded to some like a leadership bid. 

“We have so many achievements to be proud of — and yet every single one is being drowned out in the Brexit cacophony,” Johnson said.

Monday’s “indicative votes” were an effort by Parliament to find alternatives to May’s deal.

One soft-Brexit option included a commitment to remain in a “permanent customs union” with the E.U. — such an arrangement allows those within the union to trade freely without tariffs but sets an external tariff on all goods coming into the bloc. Such a deal would make it hard for Britain to go global and cut its own trade deals abroad, as it would be locked into E.U. tariff regimes. But it could control European immigration.

Another soft-Brexit option was a Norway-style relationship that would involve staying in the E.U. single, or common, market. This path may allow Britain to seek trade deals outside the E.U. but would probably mean that Britain would have to allow free movement of E.U. citizens into Britain.

Some Conservatives remain deeply opposed to these softer Brexits, in part because they see them as “Brexit in name only,” crossing all their red lines — preventing Britain from striking new trade deals with countries such as the United States and China while keeping the borders wide-open to European migrants.

Steve Baker, a Conservative lawmaker and arch-Brexiteer, is one of those adamantly opposed to these soft-style Brexits. Before the vote, he told the BBC that joining opposition parties and supporting a vote of no confidence in the May government was “on the table” if the government were to adopt this path.

“In what do I take comfort?” asked House Speaker Bercow on Monday after noting that none of the Brexit alternatives tried so far has gotten a majority. He mentioned that Roger Federer won the Miami Open and the Arsenal soccer club triumphed at its last match. “So I just have to content myself with that tonight.”

Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.

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