U.K. Lawmakers Reject ‘No-Deal’ Brexit, and Defy Theresa May Yet Again

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LONDON — Having twice thrown out Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the fractious British Parliament defied her again on Wednesday, worsening the power vacuum atop British politics just 16 days before the exit is scheduled to take place.

Parliament voted to oppose the prospect of a disorderly “no-deal” exit from the bloc, doing it in a dramatic and unexpected fashion that undercut the already-battered Mrs. May’s dwindling authority and negotiating leverage.

And the breakdown of discipline in her own Conservative Party renewed speculation that her own cabinet could try to force her from power.

No other prime minister in recent British history has been so unable, repeatedly, to work her will in Parliament. Nor have the backbench members of a ruling party felt so free to rebel openly against their leader.

Under pressure, Mrs. May had agreed to a motion asking lawmakers to vote that they opposed leaving the European Union as scheduled, on March 29, unless an agreement with the bloc were in place.

Instead, and against her wishes, Parliament voted against leaving the European Union without a deal at any date, with members of her own government rebelling.

Though it was nonbinding, the vote was another harsh blow to Mrs. May. A critical part of her strategy has been to play for time and use the fast-approaching threat of a chaotic, disorderly and economically damaging exit as leverage to get reluctant lawmakers to back her deal.

The maneuvering made clear that nearly three years after Britons voted to leave the European Union, the nation’s political system is splintering and there is no consensus on how to move ahead even as the critical deadline approaches. Over the course of two days, Parliament for a second time resoundingly defeated Mrs. May’s plan to leave the bloc, and then turned around and rejected leaving the bloc without an agreement.

Wednesday’s vote should now clear the path for Parliament to ask for a postponement of the March 29 date for withdrawal, known as Brexit, in a vote scheduled for Thursday. The question then becomes for how long and to what purpose.

Speaking after the vote, Mrs. May said that if lawmakers can support a deal in the next few days, she could request a Brexit delay until June 30 to put it in place.

But that appears unlikely. Parliament rejected the agreement she negotiated with the European Union in a humiliating 432 to 202 vote in January, and defeated it again on Tuesday, 391 to 242.

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The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has specified May 24 as the deadline for any Brexit extension, though others think this could be pushed to the end of June, just before the new European Parliament is constituted.CreditJean Francois Badias/Associated Press

Without an approved agreement, a longer extension would be needed, forcing Britain to take part in European Parliament elections in May.

That suggests Mrs. May might make one more effort to get her unpopular plan through Parliament, threatening hard-line Brexit supporters that, if it fails, she will seek a long delay that could, potentially, mean Brexit never happening.

“The House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken,” Mrs. May said.

Parliament’s actions on Wednesday were the latest in a long string of defeats and humiliations over Brexit that would ordinarily have spelled the end of a prime minister’s career, yet somehow Mrs. May has survived.

Her motion asking lawmakers to reject a no-deal exit on March 29 was expected to pass easily. Analysts had predicted that she would be able to beat back an amendment stating that Parliament opposed such a step — not just on March 29 but at any time.

Instead, lawmakers voted 312 to 308, over her objections, for the amendment. Her government then pressured lawmakers to vote against the amended motion, but they voted 321 to 278 to approve it.

Parliament had voted for a similar measure in January, but to reaffirm its stance over Mrs. May’s active opposition, this close to the deadline, was a blow to her standing.

After two years of delay and dithering, decisions have taken on a new urgency with the deadline to leave the bloc bearing down.

The detailed agreement negotiated by Mrs. May and the European Union would dictate Britain’s relationship to the bloc, including trade and immigration arrangements, after that date. But to leave without any agreement could mean chaos, with ports clogged, industries crippled, and supplies of some food and medicines running out.

Economists have said the damage would be severe.

Just how bad it could be came into focus on Wednesday, when the government published contingency plans for tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Under a new regime, tariffs would be placed for the first time on some goods from the European Union, while some on products from the rest of the world would be dropped.

The practical effect would be to undercut some farmers, for example, and add to the costs of some imported goods — hundreds of dollars for some popular imported cars.

The government also said it would not introduce controls on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a prospect that critics said issued a golden invitation to smugglers and organized crime syndicates.

Given such problems, the European Union has its own reasons for wanting to avoid a no-deal Brexit. But it has its own needs, too.

The bloc would have no practical objections to a short delay, except that it could be too brief to accomplish anything. A longer delay would give more time for a change of direction from Britain — perhaps a general election or a referendum — but would cause big legal and political complications.

Pro-Brexit protesters demonstrating on Wednesday outside the Houses of Parliament in London.CreditHannah Mckay/Reuters

The complicating factor is the May 24 start date for elections to the European Parliament. With Britain planning to leave the bloc, neither of its main political parties wants to take part in those elections.

Yet, as a matter of law, all member countries are required to participate. So if Britain were to sit out the elections while remaining a European Union member for any period of time, that could open the decisions of the European Parliament to legal challenge.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has specified May 24 as the deadline for any Brexit extension, though others think this could be pushed to the end of June, just before the new European Parliament is seated.

Mrs. May acknowledged that on Wednesday, arguing that anything more than a short extension “would undoubtedly require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019,” before adding, “I do not think that would be the right outcome.”

That underscored the fact that a short delay would be useful only if a solution were in sight to Britain’s political deadlock over Brexit.

“Eight weeks isn’t going to change the world,” said Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, senior adviser for Europe at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a research institute based in Germany. “Everything is already on the table and all the positions are clear, so where does the impetus come for something new in eight weeks?”

If Parliament were still deadlocked at the end of May or June, and Britain then requested a second time out, things would get sticky, he said.

At that point it would be very difficult to keep Britain a member of the club if it had not contested European elections. So there would need to be a much bigger change to justify it — perhaps a general election, or another referendum like the one in 2016, in which 52 percent of British voters endorsed Brexit.

Not for the first time, the pressure is on London to say what it wants.

“The Europeans are in a holding position,” Mr. Fritz-Vannahme said, “waiting to see what the mess in Westminster brings: a new prime minister, new elections, a new referendum — or nothing.”

More immediately, if Parliament does vote for an extension on Thursday, Britain’s request will have to be approved by all 27 other European Union nations at a summit meeting in Brussels next week.

The trouble then is that those nations would want an explanation for why Britain needs the request and what it proposes to do with the extra time.

Mr. Fritz-Vannahme said there is a desire to be flexible in Brussels, but visible frustration with the Brexit debacle.

“The majority is fed up with the whole bizarre show we have been watching at Westminster now for two years,” he said, “As the French put it, it’s the ridicule that kills. Where is the ‘mother of Parliaments?’ There are just factions and personal interests.’”

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