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Above: British Prime Minister Theresa May after winning the no-confidence vote/Photo: UNI

Though British Prime Minister Theresa May has narrowly won a no-confidence vote, she is under pressure to find a credible Plan B for Brexit that will get the support of Parliament

By Sajeda Momin in London

British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a humiliating defeat on January 15 when her blueprint to leave the European Union (EU) was shot down by a record majority of Members of Parliament, throwing the country into political chaos as it galloped towards the Brexit deadline. With the luck of the devil, May narrowly survived a no-confidence motion in Parliament the following day, giving her an opportunity to quickly find a Plan B that could be supported by MPs both in her party and in the Opposition.

Inflicting the heaviest parliamentary defeat that the House of Commons has ever seen, 432 MPs across party lines voted against the deal that May had negotiated with the EU over the last two years for its withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc. As many as 118 Conser­vative MPs voted against their party leader’s plans, while 202 MPs voted in favour, 196 of whom were Tories.

Considering the unpopularity of May’s 585-page draft Brexit deal, even she had not expected her plans to pass muster. However, no one expected the sheer scale of the defeat—a majority of 230. Ardent Tory Brexiters, as those in favour of Britain leaving the EU are called, like former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, were seen voting with the Opposition against the deal which many described as the “worst of all possible worlds”.

In her speech, May had pleaded with MPs to support her, arguing that this was “the most significant vote that any of us will ever be part of in our political careers”. “Together we can show the people we serve that their voices have been heard, that their trust was not mispla­ced,” she said, speaking more to Con­ser­­vative rebels than the Opposition. How­­ever, she could not manage to chan­ge too many MPs’ minds, as the vote showed.

Instead, staunch Tory Brexiters threw a champagne celebration party. Johnson, May’s bête noire, said the crushing defeat gave the prime minister a “massive mandate” to return to Brussels and seek a better deal. “We should not only be keeping the good bits of the deal, getting rid of the backstop, but we should also be actively preparing for no deal with ever more enthusiasm,” said Johnson.

As soon as the devastating verdict was announced, May rose to accept the result, saying, “the House has spoken and the government will listen”. “It is clear that the House does not support this deal, but tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support,” she added, virtually goading the Opposition into demanding a vote of no-confidence.

May realised that as prime minister, she would be expected to resign after suffering such a big defeat just as her predecessor, David Cameron, had stepped aside within days of losing the Brexit referendum in 2016. She hence quickly announced her willingness to accept a no-confidence motion to strengthen her position in Parliament and in her own party if she won.

May’s gamble paid off. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a formal motion of no-confidence in the government right away. “This is a catastrophic defeat. The House has delivered its verdict on her deal. Delay and denial has reached the end of the line,” Corbyn said as he tabled the motion.

The following day (January 16), Corbyn began the no-confidence motion by reminding MPs that May suffered “the largest defeat in the history of our democracy” and that she was leading a “zombie government”. Other leaders also sharply attacked the government with being so obsessed with Brexit for the last two years that all other important issues facing the public such as unemployment, healthcare and growing poverty had been neglected.

“The prime minister is presiding over a political collapse,” said Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National Party, adding that in its pursuit of Brexit, the country was “on a path to self-destruction”. Scotland had overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU. After a day of raucous debate, May survived by the skin of her teeth with 325 MPs supporting her and 306 MPs opposing her.

Thus, May secured her own position in her party for the time being, but is now under pressure to quickly find a credible Plan B for Brexit that will get the support of Parliament, particularly her own rebel MPs.

May had antagonised many Conservative MPs because she did not listen to or consult them on the Brexit negotiations that she was holding with Brussels. Her final blueprint was shown to her cabinet in November last year at Chequers, the prime minister’s official countryside residence. Here, she virtually held ministers under house arrest until they accepted her deal. As soon as they left Chequers, there was a round of resignations led by Johnson. Jacob Rees-Mogg, an arch Brexiter, then said May’s deal “has turned out to be worse than anticipated and fails to meet the promises given to the nation by the prime minister, either on her own account or on behalf of us all in the Conservative Party manifesto”.

Ever since the referendum, the Conservative Party has been split between those who want to keep close economic ties to the EU and remain in the all-important single market in order to protect the British economy even as they leave the trading bloc, while others want a clean break. The negotiations between the UK and the EU have been confused and chaotic because Britain has been trying to get the best of both worlds. Many of May’s critics argue that the draft deal she crafted got the worst of everything, leaving Britain without a voice in the EU but still subject to many of its trade laws.

The Opposition is particularly angry with May as she did not involve them in the Brexit negotiations at all. Corbyn has accused May of treating “Brexit as a matter for the Conservative party, rather than the good of the whole country”. While the Labour Party had been on the side of remaining in the EU during the referendum, once the “Leave” vote had been delivered, it accepted the country’s verdict and said it would support Brexit.

However, they had wanted a “soft” Brexit, which meant that despite leaving the EU, the UK would continue to be a part of the EU customs union. This would mean that the EU would not impose tariffs on British goods and vice-versa, and at the same time, impose common tariffs on goods from countries outside the EU.

A number of pro-Europe Tories also share this position. So if May includes such a provision in the Brexit deal, it stands a much better chance of being passed. However, the hard Tory Brexiters do not accept this position and would much rather come out of the EU with no deal at all.

After the disastrous vote rejecting her deal, a somewhat chastened May has promised reluctantly to consult with MPs from all parties and with “widest possible range of views”, including Corbyn. However, she seems to be sticking to her guns about a couple of the earlier controversial points like membership of a customs union. “We want to be able to do our own trade deals, and that is incompatible with either the current customs union or any other customs union,” said a spokesman for May.

The prime minister has also stated that she will not countenance talks with those pushing for a second referendum—a position held by many in the Opposition. In such a situation, the deadlock in Parliament continues and with the Brexit deadline fast approaching, May is running out of time. There is a strong likelihood that she might now ask the EU to postpone the deadline of March 29 and get an extension to the negotiating period under Article 50 of the EU treaty.

The EU is watching the chaos in the UK with much dismay. “I take note with regret the outcome of the vote in the House of Commons this evening. On the EU side, the process of ratification of the withdrawal agreement continues,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president. “The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United King­dom has increased with this evening’s vote,” added Juncker.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, appeared to back a second referendum and urged May to offer a way forward. “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?” asked Tusk.

As of now, it seems nobody has the courage to announce a second referendum and bring an end to the chaos that has been Brexit.

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