(CN) – The British Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal with the European Union on Tuesday night and plunged Great Britain into further uncertainty and chaos as it hurtles toward Brexit.
The House of Commons voted 391-242 against May’s deal with members of her own Conservative Party casting the crucial votes that defeated her deal.
With a voice made hoarse after last-ditch, late-night negotiations, the prime minister said she “profoundly” regretted the defeat.
Only hours before, she warned that Brexit itself was at risk of not happening if her deal was shot down.
“If this vote is not passed tonight, then Brexit could be lost,” May pleaded in vain. “This is a good deal.”
But Tory rebels and Northern Irish allies felt differently. They worry that May’s deal would force Britain to obey EU rules and laws while also leaving it without a say in EU affairs. They wanted more legally binding assurances that Britain will exit the EU’s legal, commercial and political dictates.
All the drama is made even more intense because Britain is set to leave the EU on March 29.
The story of Britain’s Brexit dilemma, a roller-coaster of emotions and theatrics, was vividly told in the raucous scenes of flag-waving and hollering protesters outside Parliament.
Tuesday’s defeat only raises the temperature by throwing British politics into greater chaos and conflict. The Parliament is made up of warring factions seeking very different outcomes. There are some calling for new elections; others want Britain to leave the EU without a deal, without conceding anything to the EU; others say Britain should remain in the EU.
But there is an order of business that will be followed.
On Wednesday, Parliament is expected to reconvene and hold a vote on whether Britain should leave the EU without a deal.
This option is favored by many of the hard-line Brexit supporters among the Tory ranks. They argue that this is the only route that gives Britain the upper hand in negotiating with the EU on trade while also clearly ensuring Britain regains control of everything from immigration to lawmaking.
But it appears that a majority in Parliament is against this route. Opponents fear that leaving without a deal would cause major economic damage. The Bank of England, among other financial institutions, has warned that leaving without a deal would cripple the economy.
“A no-deal Brexit could be catastrophic for our country,” said Dominic Grieve, a Tory member and former attorney general, following Tuesday’s vote during an interview on Sky News.
But Brexit supporters reject these doomsday scenarios as scare-mongering.
“Most countries in the world cope quite well without being members of the EU,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory member and a hard-line Brexiter. He acts as a spokesman for the European Research Group, a powerful group of Tory members who are seeking a clean break with the EU.
If the House of Commons votes against leaving the EU without a deal, it is then expected to vote on Thursday on asking the EU to allow Britain to delay the Brexit deadline. It is widely considered that Parliament might approve seeking an extension. The EU would have to approve a Brexit delay.
Many Tories worry that delaying Brexit could lead to Britain not leaving the EU.
This is precisely the aim of the Labour Party and other opposition parties. They are calling for a second referendum to allow Britons to vote against Brexit.
After the vote, Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn called on May to hold new elections. Labour has accused the prime minister of not working with the party on crafting a deal the opposition could support.
“The prime minister has run down the clock and the clock has run out on her,” Corbyn said on the floor of the House of Commons after the vote.
This was the second parliamentary defeat of May’s proposed deal. In January, she lost by 230 votes, the largest defeat for a sitting government in British history. On Tuesday, May’s deal lost by 149 votes.
Commentators said that in the past such large defeats typically led to a government collapsing, but that the politics around Brexit and changes in the election law make it unlikely new elections will be called until there is more clarity on where Britain is headed.
Earlier Tuesday, it seemed that May’s deal had a glimmer of hope of passing. The EU’s negotiators agreed on Monday night to add fine-tuned legal assurances regarding the future of Northern Ireland after Britain leaves the EU.
Throughout the day, lawyers debated whether the new language was sufficient to persuade hard-line Conservative members and their allies in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, to vote for the deal.
Those groups are crucial. They oppose May’s deal because they say it could leave Northern Ireland, and by consequence the rest of the United Kingdom, too closely tied to EU laws and rules indefinitely.
May’s chances of getting the deal passed suffered a fatal blow when Britain’s attorney general declared that the country remained at risk of being tied to EU rules despite the new assurances.
Built into May’s deal is a protocol called the Northern Ireland backstop that is meant to prevent the return of border checks at the Irish border in the event that Britain and the EU cannot agree to a future trade agreement. Critics say the backstop may wind up keeping Britain bound to EU rules and laws.
Tuesday’s vote was considered a historic moment for Britain, where Brexit has come to dominate British politics and has deeply divided Britons.
If Brexit takes place, some say it could cause many in Scotland and Northern Ireland to favor independence. A majority of people in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
Supporters of Brexit say Britain will become stronger by leaving the EU. They claim the EU’s laws and rules hinder economic development and infringe on Britain’s sovereignty.
About 52 percent of Britons voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU. But polls suggest a majority now favor remaining in the EU.
It’s unclear what will happen now to May’s proposals. She could seek to get Parliament to vote on it again.
Under May’s Brexit deal, Britain would keep close economic and security ties to Europe. But the prime minister says her deal allows Britain to regain control over its immigration policies and allows it to strike new trade deals.
Many Britons who voted for Brexit want to stop the flow of EU citizens entering Britain for work. Brexit supporters also say the EU’s regulations stifle trade.
May says her deal would allow Britain to set its own rules on fishing and farming, which were central arguments for those backing Brexit.
Many people fear that Brexit will lead Britain into watering down its regulatory regime and standards on environmental protection, workers’ rights and other areas.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)