(CN) — Despite a dramatic failure to get her Brexit deal past Parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday survived a vote of no confidence against her government brought by the opposition Labour Party.
But her narrow victory did little to quiet the chaos surrounding Britain’s pending departure from the European Union and left May still at the helm of the tortuous deal-making over Brexit that has left Brits frustrated and disillusioned with their political leaders.
The close vote count – 325-306 in favor of May’s government – was not a surprise given the sharp ideological and political divides that have emerged as Britain debates whether and how to leave the EU. Other confidence votes in May’s government are possible in the coming days.
Generally, those on the right favor leaving the EU while those on the left do not want to leave or want to keep Britain closely aligned to the EU.
The vote divided along these lines: Conservatives voted to keep May in No. 10 Downing Street and her opponents sought to bring about a new general election.
There are 317 Conservative Party Parliament members and their votes were propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party, which has 10 Parliament members. May’s government relies on the DUP, a Northern Irish right-wing and socially conservative Protestant party that is pushing for a clear break from the EU.
On the other side, Labour has 256 members and they were joined by a number of smaller parties in voting against May. Those parties are the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, a Welsh party, and one Green Party member. Sinn Fein, the Roman Catholic party in Northern Ireland, has seven members in Parliament but they do not participate in its proceedings.
On Tuesday, May suffered a historic defeat when Parliament rejected her deal with the EU laying out the foundations for a future relationship with the bloc.
That vote left Europe and Britain rattled by the aftershocks of political instability gripping Britain and the uncertainty about its relationship with the EU.
May’s deal was meant to lay the foundations for the economic, political and social relationship between Britain and the EU. Now it is far from certain what will happen.
On Wednesday, May appeared to be unwilling to consider Labour’s views in new negotiations over Brexit. Instead, she met with DUP leaders and her government said it would not consider aligning Britain with EU customs rules, as Labour has called for.
But after the no-confidence vote, May said she would meet with other parties to discuss the way forward. She is expected to lay out her new plans for Brexit on Monday.
Britain is slated to leave the EU on March 29, but that deadline may be extended due to the uncertain and very fluid political atmosphere now buffeting Britain. Brits voted to leave the EU in the so-called Brexit referendum in 2016.
On Wednesday, European leaders warned that the rejection of May’s deal heightened the possibility that Britain could leave the EU without a deal — a prospect many dread as economically catastrophic.
At a meeting of the European Parliament, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, warned that the risk of Britain leaving without a deal had grown.
“We are fearing more than ever the risk of a no-deal,” Barnier said.
European leaders said they were stepping up preparations to handle such a scenario. Britain, too, is getting ready for a dramatic breakup. But many political observers believe this is unlikely to happen given the wide-ranging ramifications of Britain leaving without a deal.
If Britain exits the EU without an agreement, the fear is that it would cause widespread disruption and confusion. Under this scenario, customs checks and tariffs might be imposed between Britain and the EU, leading to delays in everything from shipments of medicine to airplane flights. Exiting without a deal could disrupt supply chains, throw into doubt the residency of millions of people and bring back border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The British government has warned that a no-deal divorce would be a major shock to Britain’s economy that could last for years. The EU’s economy, too, would suffer a big hit, economists warn.
Across Europe, officials expressed dismay and urged Britain to find a solution to its political impasse.
EU President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement that he was disappointed by the rejection of May’s deal. He called it “a fair compromise and the best possible deal.”
Juncker said the EU negotiators had “shown creativity and flexibility throughout.” He warned that the risk of a “disorderly withdrawal” had increased, and he urged Britain “to clarify its intentions as soon as possible. Time is almost up.”
Other EU officials and national leaders showed unity, saying Britain could not expect major changes to the deal and warned that no one would gain from a no-deal Brexit.
On German television, Heiko Mass, Germany’s foreign minister, said: “We need a solution and we need it quickly… The time for playing games is now over,” according to Deutsche Welle, a German news service.
Blame for the Brexit mess is attributed both to Britain — in particular to the prime minister and her Conservative Party’s hardliners — and to stubbornness on the part of the EU.
May, who favored remaining within the EU before the Brexit referendum, has been castigated both for listening too much to the hardliners in her party and for being too pro-EU.
Initially, in a January 2017 speech, May set out several red lines.
She said Britain would reject the EU’s rules and regulations governing the free movement of people, goods, capital and services within the EU’s single market. She also said Britain would leave the EU’s customs regime, where goods coming into the EU face tariffs. She also said in that speech, made at Lancaster House in London, that Britain would want more control over immigration. Conservatives say Britain can forge new trade deals around the world only by freeing itself from EU rules.
But May’s critics, many of whom are Tory members, say she broke those promises while negotiating the withdrawal agreement with the EU. Under her deal, Britain conceded too much to the EU and faced being tethered to the EU, her critics say.
European leaders have been criticized for not budging and forcing Britain to accept its terms. A main concern, and bargaining chip, for the EU in the negotiations was ensuring that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remain open and free of border checks. This freedom of movement is seen as critical to ensuring that the region does not descend into sectarian violence again.
To ensure this, the EU insisted on Northern Ireland remaining open to EU citizens, services and goods until a new trade agreement can be worked out.
But this sparked other concerns: People in Scotland felt they would be at a disadvantage in trade if Northern Ireland had access to the EU market and Scotland did not. Meanwhile, some in Northern Ireland worried that they would be split off from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Another fear is that Brexit could lead to independence drives in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and thus threaten the breakup of the United Kingdom.
But many argue that the EU cannot be blamed for the chaos in Britain. Before the Brexit referendum, for instance, the EU offered Britain’s then-Prime Minister David Cameron a series of concessions in exchange for calling off the Brexit referendum. The EU allowed Britain to place more restrictions on immigrants from other EU states and to opt out of EU treaties calling for closer integration. The EU also agreed to give national parliaments more say over EU proposals. But Cameron pushed ahead with a referendum regardless.
It should also be noted that Britain has long been given a lot of leeway within the EU: It did not adopt the euro currency and it opted out of an accord to do away with border checks, the so-called Schengen Agreement.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)