(CN) — British Prime Minister Theresa May fought off a leadership challenge on Wednesday evening, but the future of Great Britain’s break from the European Union remains far from certain.
May won a secret leadership vote to remain the prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party. She won 200 votes of confidence among the 317 Tory members – a result that seriously weakened her position.
And her victory did nothing to change the arithmetic around her Brexit deal: It’s still not expected to pass the deeply fractured Parliament and therefore leaves Britain with no clear path forward on how it will exit from the EU.
If the deal is not approved, there are a few possibilities about what could happen. Britain and the EU could agree to extend negotiations, although EU officials say the deal on the table is the best deal available.
Alternatively, Britain could exit the EU on March 29, 2019, without a deal. This option, though, would create chaos and inflict major economic damage, at least in the short term.
One other possibility, which has become more popular in recent months, is for Britain to hold a national referendum and let voters to decide whether to accept May’s Brexit deal or remain in the EU.
May’s Brexit deal has many critics. There are those, mostly in the Tory party, who say the deal leaves Britain too closely tethered to EU laws and rules indefinitely. Many others, especially those in the opposition parties, would prefer to remain within the EU.
Wednesday’s events could hardly be seen as a total victory for May and simply added to the view that the Tory party and Britain are agonizingly divided over Brexit.
Before the vote, May pledged that she would step down as the party leader before the next general elections in 2022. An election could also be called before that date. Her promise to step down was reportedly an assurance she felt necessary to win support Wednesday night.
The Tories emerged from the leadership challenge bruised and, in the eyes of their opponents, unable to govern.
“They are in such a mess,” said Hilary Benn, a Labour Party member and chair of Parliament’s select committee on Brexit, during an interview with the BBC.
Benn said May’s Brexit deal was doomed in Parliament and that it was becoming increasingly clear that a second referendum may be called to determine the fate of Brexit. He said voters should be given the choice to decide whether to accept May’s deal or remain in the EU.
He said Labour may seek to call for new elections if the Tory government’s deal is struck down in Parliament. The Tory party lost a majority in Parliament after May called for snap elections in 2017.
Lord Michael Heseltine, a former Tory deputy prime minister and frequent commentator, said on BBC that Britain was facing the grim scenario of leaving the EU without a deal.
“There is the frightening prospect of a no deal,” he said. He said May’s deal “is not going through the [House of] Commons” and that leaves May with few options.
“What she is really standing for now is a no deal,” he said.
He repeated a call for a second referendum, saying voters are now much more informed about what Brexit really means.
“We need to say to the people, now we have the facts, it’s up to you, make a decision,” he said.
May was expected to head to Brussels Thursday to meet with EU leaders in the hope of winning assurances over the most complex aspect of the divorce: How to keep the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland open.
The issue of how to achieve that has become a major sticking point. May’s government relies on parliamentarians in Northern Ireland with the Democratic Unionist Party, but they are unhappy that May’s deal could leave Northern Ireland aligned with EU rules indefinitely in order to keep the border with Ireland open and free of border checks, in keeping with the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Wednesday’s events once again highlighted Britain’s longstanding difficult relationship with the European Union, which originally was viewed as a German and French project to avoid another war.
Britain joined the European common market in 1973, but only after French President Charles de Gaulle was out of power. De Gaulle had long opposed Britain’s entry, viewing Britain as incompatible with the European project.
Shortly after joining, though, Britain held a national referendum in 1975 to decide whether to remain. About 67 percent voted in favor of staying in the EU.
Still, Britain kept its distance. It chose to keep its own currency, the pound sterling,opposed greater integration with the EU and opted out of Europe’s open-borders policy, the Schengen Agreement.
Many Britons have long been deeply skeptical about aligning the island nation with EU laws and trade rules, and that skepticism has grown in the past two decades as the EU’s powers grew. Ill will toward the EU found its full expression in the explosive 2016 referendum in which 51.9 percent of British voters chose to leave the EU.
The vote to leave, pushed most strongly by Euroskeptics in the Tory party, was underpinned by concerns that Britain was losing its culture and sovereignty, sending too much money to the EU without getting enough in return and taking in too many immigrants from other EU nations.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)