The rejection of Theresa May’s Brexit deal by MPs is a massive defeat for Britain’s Prime Minister and government. May lost the parliamentary vote by a huge margin of 230, the largest-ever defeat for a ruling party. Among those who voted against the deal were 118 Tory MPs, which means that over one third of Conservatives in Parliament voted against their own government.
The result was not surprising – all the Opposition parties had said they would vote against the agreement, as had many Conservative backbenchers – but the margin of defeat was. It leaves Mrs May, who the day after won a vote of confidence in Parliament, with precious little time to decide what to do next. Britain is meant to leave the European Union in less than 10 weeks time, on March 29, and tomorrow she has to spell out her ‘Plan B’.
The rejection of Mrs May’s Brexit deal has led to more uncertainty, caused frustration in Brussels and has led to the possibility of a ‘no deal’ between the EU and the UK – which would be absolutely disastrous for both sides but especially so for Britain.
Mrs May should now make it a point to state that under no circumstances will the UK exit the bloc without a deal in place. That would be the right thing to do, it would calm the situation and it would put both businesses’ and people’s minds at rest.
The British government now has to come up with a viable proposal in place of the agreement which was voted down by the House of Commons. This will not prove to be an easy task – there are a whole range of diverse opinions across the House of Commons about how best to deal with Brexit. Opposition MPs either want a softer Brexit (but are divided even over this) or a second referendum in the hope that Brexit will be reversed, while the Conservatives are hopelessly divided between those supporting a hard Brexit or even a ‘no deal’, those backing a softer Brexit or a tweaking of the defeated accord and those wanting a second referendum.
Will Mrs May be able to find common ground among MPs in coming up with a new proposal? It is clear that no majority exists for a hard Brexit or a ‘no deal’ scenario, so these should be ruled out. The only possible way forward would be for Mrs May to propose a deal which brings the UK closer to the EU than her original accord envisaged – such as joining the Customs Union or the Single Market, and giving guarantees over workers’s rights and enviromental safeguards. Only then, perhaps, will she be able to attract support from the Opposition, in particular the Labour Party, which itself doesn’t even have a coherent Brexit policy. Of course, such a strategy risks alienating right-wing Conservative backbench MPs who could even comtemplate voting against the government if another parliamentary vote of confidence had to be held. This is a gamble Mrs May must be prepared to take if she truly puts her country before her party.
On the other hand, she could appeal to her hardline Brexiteer MPs by proposing to impose a time-limit on the Northern Irish backstop and go for a Canada-style free trade agreement. This option, however, risks the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement – an extremely dangerous development which should be avoided – and it is very doubtful it would meet the approval of either the EU or moderate Conservative MPs.
Brexit is without doubt a lose-lose situation for everyone, irrespective of whatever exit deal is agreed to. Economists have long emphasised that economic growth would suffer under any Brexit scenario, and would be disastrous in the event of a ‘no deal’. Politically, Britain will lose much of its clout on the international front if its leaves the bloc while the EU will lose an important member – which will weaken its voice and influence on the global stage. And the EU and impartial expert observers have long insisted, rightly, that Britain can never get a better deal than its present EU membership, with all its opt-outs.
Considering how complicated the whole Brexit process has turned out to be, taking into account the many lies spread by the ‘Leave’ camp during the EU referendum, and bearing in mind that many UK citizens who voted for Brexit have since changed their mind, the British people should be given the chance to vote in a second referendum. The choice would be between, on one side an amended deal (should agreement be reached with the EU) or a ‘no deal’, and on the other side, EU membership. That would give voters two clear options to choose from.
In the meantime, the British government should consider asking the EU to delay its March exit in order for things to calm down and to avoid hasty decisions being taken on such an enormous issue of national importance.
Perhaps European Council President Donald Tusk summed up the situation best when he tweeted: “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?”
When the British people and their Parliament finally decide how to proceed, we hope it will be an outcome based on common sense that will see Britain and the EU staying firmly integrated.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial