In Depth

Brexit vote: what happens now Theresa May’s deal has failed…again?

MPs reject withdrawal agreement by a majority of 58, plunging process into disarray

Theresa May has suffered a third heavy defeat on her Brexit deal, throwing the UK’s exit from the EU into further confusion.

MPs voted 344 to 286, a majority of 58, to reject the withdrawal agreement, having previously voted the proposal down by majorities of 230 and 149.

The result of the vote “means the UK has missed an EU deadline to delay Brexit to 22 May and leave with a deal”, says the BBC

May now has until 12 April “to seek a longer extension to the negotiation process to avoid a no-deal Brexit on that date”, the broadcaster adds.

The government had hoped that by splitting the withdrawal agreement – covering the terms on which the UK will leave the EU – from the political declaration, which sets out the framework for the post-Brexit trading relationship between the two sides, they would be able to win over enough Labour MPs to offset opposition from their own benches and the DUP.

But Lisa Nandy, one of those who it was thought may make the switch, told Sky News the PM’s offer to resign in change for the co-operation of the Brexiteer ERG group “has made it far more difficult” for Labour MPs to vote for the deal. In the end, just five Labour MPs voted in favour.

Moments after the results were announced, the Prime Minister told the Commons that the outcome was “a matter of profound regret”.

“The legal default now is that the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on 12 April. This is not enough time to agree, legislate for and ratify a deal, and yet the House has been clear it will not permit leaving without a deal,” she said.

In what appeared to be a hint towards a looming general election, she concluded: “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that May’s deal must change and if she cannot accept that, “she must quit – and let the country decide the future through a general election”.

The EU’s response to the vote was swift. European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted: “In view of the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement by the House of Commons, I have decided to call a European Council on 10 April.”

So what now?

The EU is no longer obliged to extend the Article 50 process until 22 May. The extension could be revived, says The Guardian, “if the UK were to pass the deal...before 12 April (the last date for deciding that the UK will participate in the European elections)”.

As European Council President Donald Tusk said last week, “until that date, all options will remain open, and the cliff-edge date will be delayed.”

But a long extension “is not certain”, says The Guardian. If it were not forthcoming, the UK would have to choose between leaving with no deal on 12 April and revoking Article 50 and remaining in the EU.

“No deal Brexit is still the default outcome if MPs can't agree anything else” says the BBC.

Are we really heading for a no-deal Brexit?

Probably not. One plausible response to the defeat “would have been for May to resign herself to a no-deal Brexit”, says The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow.

But May “did not say that she was going to do this, and she did not even seem to accept it as a possibility”, he adds.

The PM told the Commons: “This government will continue to press the case for the orderly Brexit that the result of the referendum demands.”

On Wednesday night, MPs voted decisively to reject this option, and most of them would pin their hopes on the EU’s willingness to grant a long Article 50 extension.

A second round of indicative votes scheduled for Monday now assumes added importance. After Wednesday’s votes, the options most likely to attract a majority were a post-Brexit customs union and a confirmatory referendum.

Would everyone welcome a long extension?

No. It would be hugely controversial, not least because it would require the UK to take part in European elections at the end of May.

It could also increase calls for the prime minister to make way for a new leader who could unify the Tory party and break the Brexit impasse. May sought to win support for her deal on Wednesday by promising to stand down if it was voted through - but not if the deal failed again.

She could decide the best way out of the deadlock would be to call a general election. In practice, getting an election is “fairly straightforward should the government want one, as the opposition parties would back it, meaning that the government payroll vote alone would be enough to secure the required two-thirds majority”, says The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush.

However, the one thing that unites Tory MPs is their aversion to another campaign under her command. With her authority shredded and her principle policy having been rejected three times she could face overwhelming pressure to go without delay.

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