The U.K. Parliament seized control of the Brexit process from Prime Minister Theresa May and will now seek to decide how Britain exits the European Union.
In a vote late Monday, the House of Commons split 329 to 302 to schedule votes on a series of alternative strategies, potentially including a second referendum, keeping the U.K. in the bloc’s customs union, leaving without a deal and even canceling Brexit altogether.
Three ministers resigned to back the plan, which sets up the possibility that MPs could force the beleaguered premier to implement their choice. The pound rose.
“It’s essential we should be able to look at all the serious options, not wild unicorns, but things we could actually do to carry this process forward,” former Tory minister Oliver Letwin, who proposed the plan, told Parliament. “We should allow ourselves a couple of days to do what should have been done over a couple of years.”
In a sign of how far May has lost the trust of MPs, even on her own side, the defeat came despite last-minute promises from her government that it would implement the plan itself if lawmakers voted against it.
“It is disappointing to see this amendment pass,” the Brexit department said in an emailed statement after the vote. The result “upends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous, unpredictable precedent for the future.”
Lawmakers will need to consider whether the options they support will require a delay beyond the current latest exit date of May 22, the statement said. “While it is now up to Parliament to set out next steps in respect of this amendment, the government will continue to call for realism – any options considered must be deliverable in negotiations with the EU.”
The decision might lead to an unblocking of Brexit if Parliament can send a clear signal about what it wants, though there’s a risk of it deepening the deadlock. It could also scare Brexiteers who have so far refused to vote for May’s deal into backing it, for fear of getting something they view as worse.
In any event, the clock is continuing to tick down. The EU has ruled that if Parliament doesn’t approve May’s deal by Friday the U.K. has until April 12 to come up with a case for a much longer delay to Brexit, or leave immediately with no agreement.
While Parliament was forcing its way into the driving seat, those who were supposed to be controlling the process remained passive. After reports at the weekend that May’s cabinet would tell her it was time for her to go, the subject of her departure wasn’t even raised in its meeting on Monday, according to people present.
Neither was there a decision about whether to try to put the prime minister’s deal to Parliament again. According to one person at the meeting, the main agreement was that the alternatives to getting her plan through were grim.
In the House of Commons, May set out the choices as she saw them. “Unless this House agrees to it, no-deal will not happen,” she said. “No Brexit must not happen; and a slow Brexit that extends Article 50 beyond May 22, forces the British people to take part in European elections, and gives up control of any of our borders, laws, money or trade, is not a Brexit that will bring the British people together.”
Later, in answer to questions, she raised two more options: “Either a second referendum or an election.” Both are unattractive to many MPs.
There were signs that her warnings were working with some supporters of a harder Brexit. Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the hardline European Research Group of Tory MPs, said he would be prepared to back her deal if Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party gave its blessing.
But his comments, made to a meeting of the group in Westminster on Monday evening according to a person in the room, depend on a big shift by the DUP. The party’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, was scathing to the prime minister in the Commons, accusing her of using Northern Ireland as an “excuse” and the focus of “scare tactics” to get her deal through.
Having voted to take control, Parliament now has to decide what to do with it. The first stage is the “indicative votes,” scheduled for Wednesday. Although the exact format hasn’t been agreed, it is likely to mean lawmakers voting on a series of Brexit options on a piece of paper.
The idea is that by allowing MPs to vote simultaneously for as many options as they like, some of the game-playing that has characterized Brexit votes so far will be avoided.
Options on the table are likely to include various closer relationships with the EU than May plans, a looser one, a no-deal Brexit, canceling Brexit altogether and perhaps holding a second Brexit referendum.
It’s possible that none of these will get the support of a majority, or that several will. May said she reserves the right not to abide by the result, though her spokesman said this reflected the possibility that Parliament might vote for something unattainable.
“The government’s approach has been an abject failure and this house must now find a solution,” opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “Where this government has failed, this house must, and I believe will, succeed.”
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