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Dec 10, 2018 | 19:23 GMT

5 mins read

U.K.: Facing Defeat, May Calls Off a Vote on Brexit

The Big Picture

The United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union in March 2019. But while the government has negotiated an exit agreement with the bloc, the document is so divisive that the British Parliament's approval is far from certain. The government's decision to delay the vote in the House of Commons may have won it some time, but it is unlikely to end the fragmentation in the British Parliament or persuade the European Union to make significant alterations to the agreement. 

What Happened

British Prime Minister Theresa May called off a fateful House of Commons vote on her Brexit plan on Dec. 10, just a day before it was scheduled to proceed. In doing so, May saved herself from an almost inevitable — by her own admission — defeat. Indeed, the prime minister acknowledged that the so-called Irish backstop, an arrangement to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union's customs union until the two sides can find a better solution to keep the Irish border open, was so controversial that lawmakers would probably have rejected the deal. As a result, May said she would hold emergency talks with EU governments and institutions to obtain reassurances that the United Kingdom will not be trapped in the backstop indefinitely. May did not announce a new date for the vote in Parliament, though it could occur next month.

May's Domestic and Foreign Challenges

In recent days, it has become clear that a large number of lawmakers, including dozens from May's own Conservative Party, would vote against the deal. May will now try to save the deal by taking her case to the European Council on Dec. 13-14, when she will ask EU governments to make concessions on the Irish backstop. The prime minister said she would look for ways to "empower the House of Commons" on decisions concerning the Irish border plan and "ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely." Under the current deal, the United Kingdom cannot leave the backstop unilaterally.

But May faces challenges at home and abroad. Her political situation is so fragile that she could face a leadership challenge from fellow Tories, who could try to replace her with another prime minister. Another lurking threat is the main opposition Labour Party, which could submit a confidence motion. (Labour released a statement declaring that it would not submit such a motion against May until after she brings the updated deal to the Commons, but the party could change its strategy.) If May were to lose such a vote, the Commons would have two weeks to appoint a new prime minister or an early election would occur. To complicate matters further, the Democratic Unionist Party (a party from Northern Ireland that supports May's government in Parliament) has said it does not want the Irish backstop to be renegotiated but scrapped entirely. Given such confusion, calls to end the Brexit process and even to hold another referendum will only increase in the coming days.

A chart showing the current division of seats in the British Parliament.

And the bloc itself might not provide May with much succor, because most EU governments have said the present Brexit deal is nonnegotiable. While EU leaders could agree to make clarifications or addendums, they are unlikely to completely renegotiate a document that London signed less than a month ago. After all, the union sees the backstop as an insurance policy to ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will remain open, no matter what happens with Brexit. Indeed, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, confirmed that the European Union would not renegotiate the deal in the wake of May's announcement, although he did say EU governments would discuss what they could do "to facilitate U.K. ratification."

Running Out of Time

The United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29, which means London has little time to introduce modifications to the Brexit deal and schedule a new vote in the Commons. In a game of possible brinkmanship, May might calculate the utility in delaying the Commons vote until the last possible minute in order to force members of Parliament to accept the deal on offer, lest the United Kingdom crash out of Europe with no plan in place.

Here, however, the European Court of Justice has added another variable to the mix. Not long before May's announcement, the court ruled that the British government could unilaterally withdraw its request to leave the bloc, meaning many lawmakers will still reject May's deal in the hopes that a negative vote will force the government to abort Brexit in the face of a no-deal scenario.

By kicking the can down the road, May has sought to limit the political damage a negative vote would have caused her government. But while this may buy her some time, it will neither foster unity in a Commons that is deeply divided over Brexit nor, in all likelihood, persuade the European Union to introduce deep reforms to the exit agreement.

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