(CN) – On a chaotic evening of infighting and intrigue, Britain’s Parliament voted against leaving the European Union without a deal Wednesday night, striking a blow against an influential group of hardcore Brexit backers.
The vote, nonetheless, added little clarity to what will happen over Brexit. It was a legally nonbinding vote and does not eliminate the chance of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal, which is precisely an outcome hardcore Brexiters are looking for. There are only 16 days left before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, but that March 29 deadline could be delayed.
Still, the fast-paced and evolving events in London were significant, and they were marked by a number of subplots, including divisions within Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet and political jockeying in Britain and Europe.
Most significantly, Parliament voted 321-278 against a no-deal divorce from the EU. This outcome was expected, but it was close. On one key amendment to the motion, the majority won by only four votes.
Overall, the night was seen as a victory for those seeking closer ties to the EU and a defeat for hardcore Brexiters.
Following the vote, May, whose leadership has been tremendously weakened following a number of humiliating defeats, said she would once again ask the House of Commons to ratify a withdrawal deal she hammered out with the EU. That vote could come as early as next week.
But Parliament has twice overwhelmingly rejected that deal, most recently on Tuesday. Depending on which side is talking, her agreement is viewed as keeping Britain too close to the EU and its rules and laws or not close enough.
For months, the House of Commons has been gripped in a crippling impasse over Brexit as an intense fight goes on between two camps: They are the so-called Leavers and Remainers.
The Leavers are hardcore Conservatives and their allies in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party. They want to break away decisively from the EU and prefer exiting the EU without a deal rather than accept May’s offer.
Even after Wednesday’s defeat, Brexiters were firmly against voting for May’s deal, even if doing so could strengthen the hand of those seeking to rescind Brexit altogether.
“We are not going to vote for the withdrawal agreement when it doesn’t let us leave the EU,” said Mark Francois, a Tory and leading member of the European Research Group, an influential clique of Brexiters.
Speaking to Sky News television, he said voting for May’s deal “is not a win, it’s a loss” for Brexit.
The Remainers, meanwhile, can be found inside the Conservative Party but mostly among the left-leaning opposition parties of Labour, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. Remainers want Britain to remain inside the EU or to stay closely aligned to it.
George Freeman, a Tory member, is among that group. After Wednesday’s vote, he said it was time to work with Labour members and come up with a “plan B” to May’s deal, which he called “dead.”
“There is a majority in this House for a sensible deal,” he said during a television interview inside Parliament.
This split in Parliament largely reflects the divisions Brexit has caused within the British population. In 2016, about 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the EU, but polls suggest more people may now prefer to stay within the EU.
For many, the chaos engulfing Parliament is an embarrassment.
Michael Heseltine, a longtime Conservative politician and member of the House of Lords, said during a television interview that the “scale of importance and the scale of the disaster” taking place in Westminster was unprecedented. He opposes Brexit.
He blamed much of the mess on the “impossible” position May had found herself in since taking office as prime minister.
“She campaigned to remain [in the EU] in the national interest and now she tells us it’s in the national interest to leave,” he said. “That just blows a hole in any credibility she’s ever had. Her position is humiliating. The defeats she’s suffering make Britain a laughing stock. I mean, we haven’t got a government.”
He said May had “lost control, not only of the Commons, but of her own party.”
“The thing that is missing here, and I find depressing, is the voice of sanity of the traditional Conservative position on Europe,” Heseltine said. “British self-interest is inseparable from Europe.”
After the vote, Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National Party in Parliament, said it was time for May to work with the opposition parties and come up with a deal that is acceptable to Parliament.
“She has to accept there is no appetite for” her deal, he said during a television interview on Sky News.
He blamed her for not working with other parties after she called snap elections in 2017 in the hope that Conservatives would gain more seats in Parliament but then unexpectedly lost seats.
“She lost her majority,” he said. “She is a minority government.
She hasn’t come to terms with the parliamentary arithmetic.”
For now, at least, the chance of Britain leaving the EU without a deal seems to have diminished.
And for many, that is a relief. Economists warn that a disorderly, no-deal departure from the EU would cause deep economic turmoil, interrupting chain supplies, trade, travel and financial transactions.
But the uncertainty of Brexit is still far from over.
On Thursday, the debate in the House of Commons moves onto a vote about whether Britain should ask the EU to allow it to delay Brexit from happening. The EU’s other 27 member states must unanimously agree to a delay, and some exasperated European leaders have mused that Britain does not deserve a delay.
A delay is now on the table since Parliament rejected May’s agreement.
Under that deal, trade and relations between Britain and the EU would continue largely unchanged in order to allow the two sides to broker a wide-ranging trade agreement.
If no trade agreement is reached, then Britain would go off on its own but with one key exception: Northern Ireland would remain tied to EU rules and laws to prevent the return of border checks along the Irish border, a condition that both sides said is crucial to keep Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement intact. This provision, called the Irish backstop, has become the major stumbling block.
May’s deal is despised by a majority in Parliament. On the political right, the deal was seen as potentially binding Britain, through the Irish backstop, to the EU indefinitely, and therefore betraying the very heart of the Brexit mandate. On the left, May’s deal was deemed as potentially severing Britain too drastically from the EU. In the end, there were not enough moderates to get the deal over the line.
Still, faced with the prospect of Brexit being delayed indefinitely and disappearing altogether, many commentators think many hard-line Tory members and pro-Brexit Labour parliamentarians may just end up backing May’s deal.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)