Once more, the U.K. has arrived at a difficult fork in the road.
Down one path is the withdrawal agreement Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the European Union, a deal meant to ease the jarring changes that could come with the U.K.’s departure from the international bloc on March 29. Down the other path is a rejection of that agreement — and the possible embrace of alternatives ranging from a no-deal Brexit to no Brexit at all.
British lawmakers will decide which course to take with a pivotal vote Tuesday. And May has made it clear that once it’s been determined, there might be no turning back.
“When the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this House … and ask: ‘Did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the European Union? Did we safeguard our economy, our security and our union? Or did we let the British people down?’ ” the prime minister told lawmakers Monday.
“I say we should deliver for the British people and get on with building a brighter future for our country by backing this deal.”
Five weeks after May postponed the originally scheduled vote in a desperate attempt to shore up support for her plan, it appears the proposed deal remains on very shaky ground, buffeted by criticism from her rivals and members of her own coalition.
“Will she admit that nothing has fundamentally changed? That’s the reality. Let’s not kid ourselves about that,” said Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which is allied with May’s Conservatives.
The DUP, a small Northern Irish party the Conservatives rely on to preserve their governing coalition, particularly objects to the deal’s solution to the difficult issue of the Irish land border.
A roughly 20-year-old peace accord keeps the border open between the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. But that’s a problem if the EU and U.K. are to separate. And the prime minister’s “backstop” solution — temporarily keeping Northern Ireland in the EU customs union as both sides figure out a long-term arrangement — has been roundly rejected by hard-line Brexiteers in the DUP and Conservative Party.
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On Monday, May and her counterparts in the EU sought to assuage some of these concerns. In an open letter addressed to May, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker committed to making sure “that the backstop will not need to be triggered.”
“Were the backstop to enter into force in whole or in part, it is intended to apply only temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement,” Tusk and Juncker added, pledging the “necessary political impetus and resources” to quickly reach that more permanent agreement.
Still, such pledges failed to placate the deal’s many critics, who say the letter fell short of the legally binding changes to the draft text that they had been seeking.
Conservative Gareth Johnson, one of the party whips responsible for corralling the support of his party colleagues, resigned his position Monday, saying the backstop “ensures we will be fettered in our ability to negotiate trade deals with other nations in the future.” The move makes him just the latest of a number of prominent members of May’s government who have resigned in protest of her plans.
That’s not to say May’s rivals outside her party have been silent either.
“Today’s letter [from Tusk and Juncker] is nothing more than a repetition of exactly the same position that was pulled more than one month ago,” Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Monday in Parliament. “It categorically does not give the legal assurances this House was promised and contains nothing but more words and aspirations.”
So what happens if — as looks likely — the deal fails in Tuesday’s vote?
One possibility, if a large enough number of May’s own Conservative MPs vote against the deal, is that her own Cabinet would turn against her, telling May that they have lost confidence in her leadership and that she should step down as prime minister.
But if, as seems more likely, May soldiers on, then the next step is relatively clear: “The Parliament has given Prime Minister May three [working] days to come back with a plan B,” NPR’s Frank Langfitt explained. “She may go to Brussels on Wednesday to try to get more concessions on the deal. But people are skeptical that she’s going to get anything that’s going to win over members even of her own party.”
But if that plan B should fall through, Brexit’s long-term future gets exceedingly murky. A few major possibilities, among many others, have emerged in recent weeks:
- The U.K. faces the March 29 deadline to leave the EU without any deal in place. The prospect of a “no-deal Brexit,” while cheered by some hard-liners, has spooked many others — including Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association, which represents half the U.K.’s truckers. “The potential is pretty scary,” he told Langfitt, saying customs checks may make transport a nightmare. “We could see 20 or 30 miles of lorry traffic queuing towards Dover, which is the No. 1 port with the continent.”
- Parliament seeks to extend the deadline for departure and renegotiate the Brexit deal in a way that is more palatable to lawmakers. May has ruled out such an extension, but the EU is already reportedly preparing for the possibility of a months-long Brexit delay. And the bloc’s highest court has ruled that it’s OK for the U.K. to unilaterally reverse its decision to leave. That said, EU leaders maintain that renegotiating the deal itself is off the table.
- Corbyn calls a vote of no-confidence against May’s government. The prime minister survived such a vote within her own party last month, but it is unclear whether her government would survive one when the question is put to Parliament more broadly. If the Labour leader proceeds in this direction — as some British outlets have reported that he plans to do — the aim would be to force May’s resignation and trigger a general election to oust Conservatives from power.
- The last option is one that may well go hand-in-hand with No. 3, and it’s a prospect that, even a couple of months ago, might have seemed impossible: Go back to the British people with a second referendum. “It would be completely extraordinary. It would basically be saying, ‘We can’t work this out. We know you voted for it, but try again,’ ” Langfitt observed Tuesday. “That is an extraordinary thing for a democracy to do.”
As far as May is concerned, though, these possibilities shouldn’t need to arise. According to the prime minister, there is just one — and only one — responsible way forward: MPs should vote for her deal, the draft agreement she negotiated with the EU.
“The consequences of voting against this deal … are becoming ever clearer. With no deal, we would have no implementation period, no security partnership, no guarantee for U.K. citizens overseas and no certainty for businesses and workers,” the prime minister told lawmakers Monday.
But more likely, she said, the outcome of a “no” vote would mean no Brexit at all — a move that, in her words, would be tantamount to “a subversion of our democracy.”
“People’s faith in the democratic process and their politicians would suffer catastrophic harm,” May said. “We all have a duty to implement the result of the referendum.”