LONDON – British lawmakers on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to take the nation out of the European Union, an outcome that could delay or derail Brexit and that threatens May’s leadership.
May lost by 230 votes, one of the largest parliamentary defeats inflicted on a British government in nearly 100 years. In a short statement after the vote, May said Parliament should hold a confidence vote in her leadership, pre-empting an expected move by opposition parties to seek her ouster in the event of a large defeat.
Though the loss, 432-202 in the House of Commons was widely expected, the scale of her potential defeat was unclear and her fragile leadership is now under siege.
Lawmakers will consider on Wednesday whether to hold the confidence vote.
“EU citizens here and UK citizens in the EU deserve clarity as soon as possible,” she says, as do businesses and ordinary people,” May said.
Yet Britain still faces an impressive array of Brexit-related possibilities: More votes, a new prime minister or government, a postponed or shelved exit from the EU, a withdrawal in name only – or no exit at all.
President Donald Trump has criticized May’s Brexit plan and the two leaders have had an awkward relationship that strained a historic “special” alliance that stretches back decades. May has publicly disagreed with Trump on a range of geopolitical issues, from his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal to his immigration policies.
Most analysts believe if Britain leaves the EU without an exit deal it will significantly harm its economy. The Bank of England has warned the exit could plunge Britain into its deepest recession in nearly a century. Three million EU nationals who live in Britain under EU “freedom of movement” laws, and 1.3 million Britons who do the same in other EU nations, would become illegal overnight.
Many lawmakers, including from May’s own ruling Conservative Party, object to the deal she negotiated because they don’t think it goes far enough to disentangle Britain’s economic and political ties to the EU.
Among the concerns: an unresolved question over the land border between Northern Ireland (part of Britain) and Ireland (part of the EU). Decades of peace between Northern Ireland’s Irish Catholic community and its British Protestant one have been facilitated by the free trade and travel across that border that EU membership allows.
May survived a no-confidence vote in her leadership called by members of her party late last year who threatened to oust her from power. While under parliamentary rules another vote of this kind can’t be called by members of her own party for another year, opposition parties could band together to hold another one. And if she lost that vote it could lead to a new prime minister or trigger an election.
May previously delayed a vote on her EU deal because it was unlikely to pass. She has also made it clear that she opposes holding a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership, which passed in the 2016 referendum by 52 percent to 48 percent.
However, Tuesday’s contest does not spell automatic disaster for her leadership or Brexit. She’ll have three days to devise a backup plan.
“It is reasonable to expect that another parliamentary vote could be an option,” wrote analysts at Rabobank in a research note. They pointed out that for this to happen May would need to lose today’s vote by a smaller-than-expected margin.
One vote May couldn’t rely on was pregnant lawmaker Tulip Siddiq’s.
Siddiq, from the opposition Labour Party, is delaying the planned caesarean-section birth of her second child by two days so she vote against May’s deal. She plans to enter Parliament in a wheelchair.
“If my son enters the world even one day later than the doctors advised, but it’s a world with a better chance of a strong relationship between Britain and Europe, then that’s worth fighting for,” the 36-year-old told Britain’s Evening Standard.
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