(CN) – Uncertainty and a lot more political gridlock is what looms for the United Kingdom as the British Parliament on Tuesday evening overwhelmingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s blueprint defining the terms of her nation’s exit from the European Union.
In a major decision, a deeply divided Parliament voted 432-202 against a deal May struck with the EU laying out legal, economic and political terms for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Britain voted in a historic referendum in 2016 to leave the EU.
It was the biggest defeat a prime minister has suffered in nearly a century. Immediately after the vote, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, tabled a vote of no confidence in May’s Tory government. The Parliament was expected to begin debating the vote of no confidence Wednesday. The Labour Party wants a new general election and a second referendum to allow voters to decide if they want to remain in the EU.
“This is a catastrophic defeat for this government,” Corbyn said.
He blamed May for not taking into consideration the views of others outside her Conservative Party in hammering out a deal with the EU.
“At every turn, the prime minister has closed the door on dialogue,” he said in televised remarks. “In the last two years she has had only one priority – the Conservative Party.”
After the vote, May said she would meet with her party and coalition government members to discuss how to proceed and she welcomed debate on Labour’s vote of no confidence. May said she remained determined to get a deal on exiting the EU done.
May acknowledged the defeat, but argued the vote said very little about what deal the House of Commons favors.
“Tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it supports,” she said in brief remarks after the defeat. She said Parliament must act quickly in order to give “people clarity” about Britain’s future.
She added that it was not her strategy to “run down the clock” and not achieve a deal with before Britain is slated to leave the EU on March 29.
“I have always believed in leaving in an orderly way,” she said.
Crafting a deal that pleases Britain’s warring political factions and its diverse interests has proven tremendously difficult.
For many conservatives, May’s deal gave far too many concessions to the EU and left Britain tied too closely to the EU. A significant number of May’s own party members opposed the deal.
These conservatives championed leaving the EU and rebelled against May. They are determined to free Britain from EU rules and laws, which they say undermine Britain’s sovereignty, leave it less competitive on the world economic stage and force it to pay large sums to the EU without getting enough in return.
Opposing that view is the majority of Labour’s members. Many Labour members do not want to leave the EU and favor closer ties to the EU than May’s deal set out.
Another major political force is against leaving the EU: the Scottish National Party. Scotland does a lot of trade with the EU and a majority of Scots voted to stay in the EU in the referendum.
A major stumbling block in getting a deal done has been the question of the border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland.
May’s government relies on the support of a small Northern Irish party, the Democratic Unionist Party, to get her agenda through Parliament. But the DUP was upset with May’s Brexit deal, saying it would leave Northern Ireland tethered to EU rules indefinitely, severing Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain economically.
To keep the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland open and free of border checks, the EU demanded that Northern Ireland be aligned with EU customs regulations and rules. The Good Friday Agreement, signed between Britain and Ireland to foster peace in Northern Ireland, also calls for open borders. May also supported keeping the border open.
In the Brexit referendum, which saw a turnout of 72 percent, about 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU and 16.1 million voted to remain. Although the referendum was not legally binding, not carrying out the vote’s result is considered nearly politically impossible.
Before Tuesday’s vote, May told the Parliament that it had a duty to carry out the voters’ will and leave the EU. She characterized the vote as historic.
“This is a historic decision that will set the future of our country for generations,” she said in pleading with Parliament to approve her deal.
She said a “second referendum would lead to further division” and that leaving the EU without a deal was not “what the British people voted for.” Some hard-line conservatives argue that leaving the EU without a deal is preferable and that Britain could trade with the EU on World Trade Organization rules. Economists have warned that would be disastrous.
It is far from clear what will happen now.
To begin with, the Parliament will take up Labour’s vote of no confidence. If Labour prevails by cobbling together enough votes from other parties, then there would be another general election. But that is considered unlikely.
Otherwise, Britain could choose to extend a deadline on exiting the EU in order to negotiate a new deal. It’s also possible that a second referendum could be the solution to the gridlock. Another possibility is that May and the EU could strike a new deal that satisfies a majority in the Parliament in a short amount of time. It’s also possible that Britain will leave the EU on March 29 with no deal.
Getting to this chaotic point has been a non-stop political drama, consuming British politics and public opinion. The Brexit deal is considered one of Britain’s most significant political moments in generations and its implications are far-reaching economically, politically and socially.
The EU is Britain’s largest trading partner and the terms of the deal will determine the future of that relationship. Britain is also closely tied to Europe militarily and financially. London is considered Europe’s financial center. Brexit also threatens to interrupt the free flow of Europeans into Britain and makes the future of Brits living in other parts of Europe uncertain.
The scenes inside and outside Parliament on Tuesday were frenetic and feverish, as inside members debated the pros and cons of May’s Brexit deal. Outside, there was a raucous atmosphere with protesters holding banners, signs and flags.
The vote against May’s deal was expected. The vote tally showed 118 members of May’s own party voted against the deal. All but three of Labour’s 251 members voted against the deal while 196 Conservatives voted for it. Also voting against it were the Scottish National Party’s 35 members, all 11 Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 members.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)