The Brexit Deal That Wasn’t

The UK Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal by a 230-vote margin. The scale of the defeat–the largest for a government since the 1920s–was beyond what analysts and, apparently, May’s government expected. As soon as the vote result was announced in a packed House of Commons, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn introduced a motion of no-confidence against May, which will be considered tomorrow.

May had led negotiations for a British exit from the EU since she became PM after the 2016 referendum, when 52 percent of British voters chose to leave. May’s entire premiership rests on achieving Brexit. While hardliners who make up a significant portion of her governing coalition want a full, speedy, and complete exit–either with a deal or without–May has sought to negotiate an exit that causes minimal damage to the United Kingdom’s economy and security. By law, the UK is due to officially depart the EU on March 29.

Hardline Brexiteers appeared to have strongly contributed to the Brexit deal’s defeat. They saw the deal as a “half-in, half-out” compromise that would effectively keep the UK in the EU for years while robbing it of any power to change EU rules. 

They joined opposition MPs who voted against the deal for a variety of reasons. Some oppose Brexit altogether and either want to cancel it–damn the voters–or believe a second referendum would show that remaining in the EU is, now, more popular than leaving. Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Euroskeptic who has promised that, if he were prime minister, he would go through with Brexit, argues that the government’s negotiations have lacked transparency, that May’s government has not consulted Parliament to build consensus around its positions, and has come up with a deal that hurts working-class Britons.

Outside of Parliament, news of the deal’s defeat was met with celebratory cheers from a crowd of people waving EU flags–Remainers who believe the deal’s defeat increases the likelihood that Brexit will be cancelled altogether–and from another crowd of Brexiteers who think the deal is a half-measure that doesn’t fulfill the clear mandate of the 2016 referendum.

Despite her staggering rout, May will most likely survive the confidence vote; conservative MPs who voted against her deal are telling reporters that they’ll nonetheless support her government. It’s better, after all, to exert pressure from within a majority than to lobby as a minority. But May does not have any other Brexit plan beside the deal she has negotiated for two years. EU leaders say no other deal can be negotiated so Britain must accept it or leave without any deal. Some Brexiteers, in a predictable bit of chest-thumping, told reporters that rejecting the deal would put more pressure on the EU to come to more favorable terms. That’s unlikely. While a hard Brexit would hurt both the EU and the UK in numerable ways, it does not appear that it would hurt the EU to such an extent that the UK could use the prospect of its withdrawal as leverage.

It’s more likely that May will ask for an extension of the March 29 Brexit deadline. The EU governing body appears to be preparing to offer an extension to July. But, as European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted minutes after the Parliament vote: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.