LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland (CN) – Imperiled British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered another heavy blow on Friday when the House of Commons again rejected her divorce deal with the European Union, raising the prospect that new elections may be needed to break the impasse.
A deeply divided and acrimonious Parliament voted 344-286 against a 585-page withdrawal agreement her government hammered out with the EU. The deal lays out terms for the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, but it is viewed as either keeping the UK too closely aligned to Europe or not close enough.
This was the third time since January that the House rejected May’s deal and it symbolically came on the day that the UK was scheduled to leave the EU. Now the UK faces an April 12 exit date, but it looks likely that a much longer delay may happen now that May’s deal was defeated again.
The uncertainty over Brexit is deepening – and frustration is growing.
“Whatever happens, the politics of the country are poisoned, and half of the people in this country will feel they didn’t get what they wanted,” said Nina Schick, a political commentator for Sky News television.
Public anger was on display outside Parliament where a mass of demonstrators gathered. Brexit supporters, many affiliated with far-right groups, convened at one event and lambasted Parliament for stalling Brexit. In a 2016 referendum, about 52 percent of UK voters, most of them in England, opted to leave the EU and many of them now feel betrayed.
In all the uncertainty, one thing is clearer: The prime minister’s political life is on the brink.
On Wednesday, in a desperate bid to win over rebels inside her party, May offered to resign as prime minister if her deal was approved. Still, even this was not enough and 34 Tory members voted against her anyway on Friday.
Before and after the vote, May was the picture of defeat as she faced Parliament. She jabbed at political opponents, gave a lackluster speech to rally support for her deal and, after the vote was in, seemed ready to surrender.
“Mr. Speaker, I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House,” she told Parliament. “This House has rejected no deal. It has rejected no Brexit. On Wednesday it rejected all the variations of the deal on the table. And today it has rejected approving the withdrawal agreement.”
Opposition parties called for May to resign, as did some members of her own party. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is seeking new elections while a leadership fight is brewing inside the Tories.
“This must be the final defeat for Theresa May’s deal,” said Steve Baker, a leader of a group of hard-line pro-Brexit Tories called the European Research Group, on Sky News television. He called on her to quit.
“The right thing to do is to go back to the people,” said Ian Blackford, a leader of the Scottish National Party. His party advocates staying within the EU and it wants to allow voters a chance to vote in a second Brexit referendum.
“I think the most likely outcome now is that we’re slipping toward a general election,” said Henry Newman, director of Open Europe, a conservative think tank. “The public mood is ugly toward politics at the moment. People are just furious.”
But British media reported that May’s spokespeople were saying the prime minister was not considering a new election. Reportedly, she was even weighing the option of bringing back her deal again next week for another vote.
The Brexit deadlock largely comes down to the complex and politically explosive issue of Northern Ireland.
Brexit created a huge dilemma in Northern Ireland, which has enjoyed relative peace and growing prosperity since the signing of the Good Friday peace process in 1998. The agreement ended the so-called Troubles, a bloody sectarian conflict between Roman Catholic and Protestant paramilitaries that began in the late 1960s.
After voting to leave the EU, the UK now must figure out a way to both leave the EU, a transnational bloc without borders, and become a nation with its own borders while also abiding by the Good Friday treaty. Under the treaty, there must be a free and open border with Ireland, which is an EU member.
The solution May and the EU came up with was to keep Northern Ireland inside the EU trading bloc indefinitely while the rest of the UK could leave the EU’s customs rules. But that arrangement is unacceptable to many in Northern Ireland who fear they would be split from the rest of the UK.
The issue of Northern Ireland became even more central to the Brexit negotiations after May ill-advisedly called snap elections in 2017. She lost seats in Parliament to Labour and, due to her miscalculation, became even more dependent on the votes of 10 members of a Northern Irish party known as the Democratic Unionist Party.
The DUP are staunchly pro-Brexit but also adamant about remaining aligned with the rest of the UK. The DUP is made up of Protestant voters who are opposed to closer alignment with the Republic of Ireland and who pledge allegiance to Britain’s monarchy.
Before Friday’s vote, DUP leaders remained steadfast and said they would vote against May’s deal. They did just that.
“I would stay in the European Union and remain rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position. That’s how strongly I feel about the union [of the United Kingdom],” Nigel Dodds, a DUP leader, told the Guardian newspaper after Friday’s vote.