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After May’s Brexit defeat, here’s what happens next

By Jen Kirby

Theresa May suffered a historic defeat in The Commons as her own party turned against her.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was just voted down by Parliament.

May’s deal lost 202 to 432, a humiliating margin that reveals just how unpopular her plan was. In truth, though, the outcome was somewhat anticlimactic: Members of Parliament have been vocal about their opposition to the withdrawal agreement ever since May delivered it last year. The backlash forced May to postpone the vote in December, but the delay ultimately didn’t help her convince members of Parliament to support her plan.

Now the Brexit deadline — March 29, 2019 — is just 73 days away, and the UK has no clear path forward for how to exit the EU.

May’s government will now face a no-confidence vote in the wake of this historic defeat. Labour, the opposition party led by Jeremy Corbyn, is putting forward the motion with the hope of achieving general elections. Corbyn has said he will try to renegotiate the Brexit deal if he were to become prime minister but has not committed to a second referendum — another people’s vote on Brexit — despite support within his party.
If she survives the no-confidence vote, May will have to deliver a plan B on Brexit to Parliament within three days, which members of Parliament can amend, potentially giving them more control over the process. It’s not clear if she’ll be able to salvage the deal, but she’s still likely to get together with European Union leaders quickly to see if there’s anything it can offer.

Looming above all this is the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, where the United Kingdom would crash out of the European Union without contingency plans in place. The consequences are potentially catastrophic.

May’s deal is defeated. Now what?
The Brexit deal that just got destroyed in the UK Parliament laid out the terms of the divorce, including a 21-month transition period, and included a short political declaration that commits to an as-yet-undecided future relationship between the EU and the UK.

May’s deal was a compromise — an attempt to soften the split with the EU but also pave a way for a formal break with the bloc. One of the sticking points that has emerged prominently in the debate is the “Irish backstop,” which is basically an insurance policy to guarantee that the border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) remains open as the UK and EU try to negotiate their future relationship.

But the deal found opponents on both sides of the Brexit debate, from Brexiteers who wanted a more decisive split with the EU and believe the backstop is a trap to keep the UK tied to the EU, and those who want to remain close to Europe or really don’t want to break up with the bloc altogether. Each, in some way, was hoping that they wouldn’t have to compromise and, by defeating the deal, could get their way.
The stunning 230-vote loss was an unequivocal rejection of that deal. And now, members of Parliament will decide if they just had no faith in the deal — or do not have any faith in May’s government.

Corbyn has put forward a motion for no confidence, which the Parliament will debate on Wednesday. (This is different from the no-confidence vote May survived in December, which was strictly within her own party.)

Risky gambit … Corbyn has moved a motion for no confidence in the PM.

But the gambit is risky. Conservative Party members or members of the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Ireland party that props up May’s government, would have to defect. While they might not love May’s deal, they probably hate the idea of Corbyn becoming prime minister even more.

If May loses, there are 14 days to try to form a new government. (May could step aside, but she doesn’t have to.) If a new government isn’t formed, then general elections would be called. A huge chunk of the Labour Party wants to make a second referendum — a people’s vote on the future of Brexit — the party’s platform, but Corbyn has resisted, and says instead that he’s going to renegotiate the Brexit deal.

If general elections do happen, they would take five to six weeks, and it’s likely Britain would have to get permission from the European Union to extend Article 50 (the mechanism of the EU treaty that the UK used to withdraw from the bloc) and push back the Brexit deadline.

It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen next — but a lot of it will depend on the outcome of this no-confidence vote. All the experts I’ve talked to about the Brexit vote have told me some version of the same line: If anyone says they know what’s going to happen, they’re fooling you.

With that enormous caveat in mind, here’s are some of the scenarios to watch for in the comings days and weeks.

After all this, what happens to May’s Brexit deal?
Nobody knows for sure. If May survives, she’s likely to get together with the EU, and quickly, to see if there are any tweaks that can be made to make the deal more palatable. The EU doesn’t want to see a no-deal Brexit, but how much or how far they can bend when it comes to renegotiation is questionable.

Michael Leigh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former EU official, told me ahead of the vote that it doesn’t seem likely that they’d go ahead and remove the Irish backstop, but that “with creativity and imagination, they may find a way to provide reassurances.”

May will have to deliver a plan B to Parliament, and what she presents will reveal if she’s trying to push a similar arrangement, has won major concessions, or has a totally different strategy in mind.

Parliament takes more control of the process
Members of Parliament could try to assert more control over the Brexit process after May comes back to them with her plan B. This means that a very divided Parliament would need to agree to a solution. What seems likely is they may try to pass legislation to avert a no-deal Brexit. But how they will enact that — whether through a second referendum or revoking or extending Article 50 (the mechanism of the EU treaty that the UK used to withdraw from the bloc) is unclear, and some might require EU approval.

Britain gets general elections
May will now face a no-confidence vote, and if she loses — which, again isn’t guaranteed — members of Parliament have 14 days to try to form a new government, and if they can’t, then general elections would be called. A huge chunk of the Labour Party wants to make a second referendum — a people’s vote on the future of Brexit — the party’s platform, but Corbyn has resisted, and says instead that he’s going to renegotiate the Brexit deal.

If general elections do happen, they would take five to six weeks, and it’s likely Britain would have to get permission from the European Union to extend Article 50 (the mechanism of the EU treaty that the UK used to withdraw from the bloc) and push back the Brexit deadline.

Parliament tries for a second referendum
There’s been growing support for a second referendum — it has cross-party support in Parliament, but not quite a majority. May has resisted such a vote at all turns, suggesting it’s undemocratic and effectively voids the outcome of the 2016 referendum.

Proponents of a second referendum believe that enough voters will have witnessed the Brexit mess and will opt to remain part of the EU on a second try. Their case was bolstered by a decision by the European Court of Justice last month that said the UK could unilaterally revoke Article 50 and basically cancel Brexit altogether, without the approval of the other 27 EU member states, and as long as it remained consistent with UK laws.

But a second referendum is enormously risky, and it’s not clear what it would ask: a vote on May’s Brexit deal? A Leave or Remain do-over vote? This would also require an Article 50 extension, pushing back the Brexit deadline. And even though it’s seen as a possible Brexit do-over, there’s no guarantee that pro-Remainers would get the outcome they desire.

There’s always the chance of a no-deal Brexit
If Parliament can’t come to a consensus on what to do next, the UK will continue to hurtle toward the Brexit deadline without a deal. The government has stepped up contingency planning in recent weeks, but it may not be enough to absorb the economic and political shock of this scenario, which would likely include food and medicine shortages, flights grounded, ports of entry backed up for miles, and troops deployed to deal with any unrest.

Article 50 extension
Many of the scenarios above involve an Article 50 extension, which the EU will probably go along with if it means the possibility of a second referendum or general elections that might change the Brexit outcome. This could also happen if the UK and EU exhaust all other options and return to May’s deal in the end. That’s because the approval of the Brexit deal is the first step — it has to be passed into UK law, and then the EU Parliament must approve it. And that might not happen by March 29. – Vox.

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