The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

British Parliament votes to delay Brexit, rejects a second referendum for now

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street ahead of the vote. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

LONDON — British lawmakers voted Thursday to seek to delay Brexit — maybe for weeks, maybe for months — after Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for leaving the European Union have been repeatedly rejected by a raucous Parliament trying to wrest control from her.

Since becoming prime minister, May had insisted that “Brexit means Brexit,” that she would negotiate a good deal and that Britain would leave the European Union on March 29, 2019. The March date was a deadline the prime minister herself triggered when she — alongside the British Parliament — initiated Article 50 in the E.U. treaty two years ago.

Now Britain almost certainly will not leave the European Union in two weeks — unless E.U. leaders reject its request for an extension and it crashes out with no deal. The vote to delay Brexit passed 412 to 202.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke in the House of Commons in London March 14, after Parliament voted in favor of seeking an Article 50 extension. (Video: Reuters)

Also on Thursday, lawmakers voted against holding a second Brexit referendum, a complete do-over that could reverse the result of the historic June 2016 plebiscite.

While many members of Parliament may ultimately back a second referendum — a highly contentious proposal marketed as a “People’s Vote” — even supporters of the move withheld support Thursday, hoping instead to push the idea in tumultuous days to come.

May is offering lawmakers a stark choice: support her now twice-rejected Brexit deal in a third “meaningful vote” next week — dubbed MV3 — or face the prospect of a Brexit delay that could stretch far into the future, perhaps a year or more.

Christopher Chope, a hard-line Brexiteer and fellow member of May’s Conservative Party, confessed that he had felt May’s cold steel. “Instead of accepting the verdict of the House, she is stubbornly continuing to assert that her deal is a good deal. And now she is holding a pistol to our heads by threatening that we will lose Brexit altogether,” he told the House of Commons on Thursday.

President Trump and Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar spoke to reporters about Brexit at the White House on March 14. (Video: The Washington Post)

The clock ticks louder each day. May said that if the lawmakers back a Brexit deal by Wednesday — the day before a European summit — she will ask E.U. leaders for a “one-off extension” ending June 30. Those three months would be necessary to pass legislation in Britain and on the continent and to provide for an “orderly Brexit.”

The prime minister said that if the lawmakers reject her third attempt to win approval for her half-in, half-out compromise plan for Brexit, she would ask E.U. leaders for a longer delay. 

Staying in beyond June probably would require Britain, as one of the 28 E.U. member states, to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019. This would essentially keep Britain in the economic and political union for a good while.

How long? Maybe forever, opponents of Brexit hope and hard-line Brexiteers fear.

President Trump waded into the debate Thursday, offering May a hand in a morning tweet: “My Administration looks forward to negotiating a large scale Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. The potential is unlimited!”

But in a later meeting with the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House, Trump was critical of May’s leadership.

“I’m surprised at how badly it’s all gone from the standpoint of a negotiation,” Trump said. “I gave the prime minister my ideas on how to negotiate it, and I think you would have been successful. She didn’t listen to that and that’s fine — she’s got to do what she’s got to do. I think it could have been negotiated in a different manner, frankly. I hate to see everything being ripped apart now.”

European leaders will have to decide what to do with Britain when they gather for two days in Brussels starting next Thursday. They are divided over how much rope to give.

Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi compared the suspense of Brexit to a “Hitchcock film.”

Some countries, especially France, feel that if a no-deal departure is going to happen anyway at the end of an extension, it would be preferable to face the pain sooner. French President Emmanuel Macron would prefer to take Brexit off the table as an issue in May elections for the European Parliament, since euroskeptic far-right groups in France have been energized by the Brexit turmoil.

Others think a long extension would be best, so that voters do not blame mainstream leaders for whatever economic turmoil arises. Or they want to preserve good relations with a country that will continue to be an important trading and security partner even after its departure.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, tweeted Thursday that he would urge E.U. leaders to support a “long extension” if Britain needed to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”

“Once they sort themselves out, I’m pretty sure the 27 will still be united on the next steps forward,” European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told Sky News. “But many member states are saying, yes, you’re talking about an extension, but to do what?”

Conservative Party lawmaker Kenneth Clarke, who opposes Brexit, told Sky News that the government should ask Brussels for the longest possible extension. 

“I think we should suggest to the Europeans a good, long delay,” Clarke said. “Go back to square one and work out . . . over a proper time, the final relationship.”

Passions are high — as hard-line Brexiteers fear May’s strategy will force them to accept a deal they don’t like or risk losing their beloved Brexit. 

A headline in the Telegraph newspaper read: “Britain’s Remainer elites have declared war on democracy itself.”

Nigel Farage, the frontman for Brexit and former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, warned, “Brexit’s betrayal is one of the most shameful chapters in British history.”

The vote against a second referendum was decisive: 335 to 85. The opposition Labour Party asked its members to abstain and urged angry backbenchers pushing for a second referendum to be patient. “It is obvious that we are supportive of the principle. It’s a question of timing,” said Keir Starmer, Labour’s leader on Brexit.

Vince Cable, the leader of the pro-referendum Liberal Democrats, said there was still hope for a do-over: “We’ve seen Theresa May’s proposals coming back again and again. We’ll come back again and again.”

Cable said the key was Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been only lukewarm about a second referendum.

Speaking after the vote, Corbyn said, “I also reiterate our support for a public vote.” He was jeered, in part, because members did not believe him.

Lawmakers also voted against an amendment that called for Parliament to hold “indicative votes” on a range of Brexit options, to help determine whether there was a majority for anything. The amendment reflected an effort by Parliament to take control of Brexit away from May. The vote was close: 314 to 312.

Members of May’s party have been brazen in saying that a compromise deal could be crafted — but they beg the prime minister to drop her plan.

“There is a majority in this house for a Brexit deal. It’s just not the prime minister’s deal,” Conservative lawmaker George Freeman told the BBC. “We have got to find a way to find that cross-party deal.”

Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, told the BBC that her party was in talks with May. Many observers think that if the DUP falls in behind the government, other Brexiteers will follow.

“When you come to the end of a negotiation, that’s when you really start to see the whites of people’s eyes,” Foster said, “and you get down to the point where you make a deal.”

Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

Will Brexit happen? When? And how? The uncertainty is maddening for business.

Britain is operating as if a Brexit delay is there for the taking. It’s not.

Parliament rejects a no-deal departure

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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