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British Prime Minister Theresa May’s 11th-hour attempt to salvage her government’s Brexit deal was thrown into disarray on Tuesday evening, as lawmakers voted down her agreement with the European Union for a second time in two months, with just 17 days to go before Britain is scheduled to leave the E.U.
The vote, by a margin of 391 votes to 242, is another blow to May, who rules with a wafer-thin working majority and has lost the support of most of her cabinet according to some reports.
May’s defeat means the U.K. is on track to leave the bloc without an agreement that would have stopped raised tariffs on trade and uncertainty about citizens’ rights.
But lawmakers will finally be given the chance to vote on Wednesday night to avert such a “no deal” Brexit, and likely delay Britain’s exit date, too, in what could be yet another blow to May’s government.
Lawmakers forced the government to allow that vote, and most analysts now believe lawmakers will vote overwhelmingly to do so. That would trigger yet another vote on Thursday on whether to ask the E.U. to delay the date of Britain’s exit, from March 29 to some time further in the future.
May had hoped that the looming March 29 Brexit deadline, and warnings of chaos from the Bank of England in the event of a “no deal” Brexit, would pressure lawmakers who voted against her deal in January to change their minds. And although her defeat was by a smaller margin than the record-breaking one she had suffered that month, (by 432 votes to 202,) it was not enough.
“This was a bad deal in January when it was rejected by the largest margin in parliamentary history,” said Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party. “And it is a bad deal now.”
As May defended her deal with a hoarse voice at the Parliamentary dispatch box before the vote, she was heckled from the benches by calls of “nothing has changed” – a reference to a comment she herself had made after the disastrous 2017 election, which she had called intending to increase her authority going into Brexit negotiations, but in which her party instead lost its majority.
Tuesday’s drama topped off a hectic 24 hours in British politics. On Monday night, May had held a late-night press conference with the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, where she triumphantly said the E.U. had agreed to a legally binding change on the “backstop,” a key sticking point of the plan among critical lawmakers.
A legal instrument that would keep the border open between Northern Ireland, (a part of the U.K.), and the Republic of Ireland, (a member state of the E.U.), by applying certain E.U. laws to Northern Ireland, the “backstop” proved unacceptable to many lawmakers because it would violate the sovereignty of the U.K. government.
May’s claim to have settled those fears was shattered by Tuesday morning, when the U.K.’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, gave legal advice to lawmakers saying that “the legal risk … remains unchanged” of Northern Ireland being trapped in that “backstop” arrangement with the European Union.
To many lawmakers who had voted down May’s deal for the first time in January because of concerns over the “backstop,” Cox’s advice provided evidence that their concerns had not been sufficiently met.
After losing her voice, May lost her vote. Now, if the Westminster bubble can agree on one thing, it’s that what happens next is totally unpredictable.