With one of the most devastating losses in the history of British politics—a 432-to-202 vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday—Prime Minister Theresa May was handed a rebuke of her proposed Brexit framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
The vote, which comes as the clock continues ticking toward a March deadline for a voter-decreed EU separation, has triggered yet another no-confidence vote that could force May from office.
“Theresa May has reached the end of the line,” was the blunt assessment of Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“In the last two years she has only had one priority, the Conservative party,” Corbyn said as the votes were tallied. “Her governing principle of delay and denial has reached the end of the line. She cannot seriously believe that after two years of failure she is capable of negotiating a good deal for the people of this country.”
Reactions to the vote illustrate both political entrenchment and confusion as to where the United Kingdom goes now. Despite the desires of Brexit hardliners to negotiate a better deal with the European Union, Member States have shown scant willingness to do so.
“We regret the outcome of the vote and urge the U.K. government to clarify its intentions with respect to next steps as soon as possible,” European Council President Donald Tusk said in a statement. The European Union, he added, “will remain united and responsible as we have been throughout the entire process and will seek to reduce the damage caused by Brexit. We will continue our preparations for all outcomes, including a no-deal scenario. The risk of a disorderly exit has increased with this vote, and while we do not want this to happen, we will be prepared for it.”
May, despite the political thrashing, remained a forceful advocate for the separation plan she helped create. “It is clear that the House does not support this deal, but tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support,” she said. “Nothing about how—or even if—it intends to honor the decision the British people took in a referendum Parliament decided to hold. People, particularly EU citizens who have made their home here and U.K. citizens living in the EU, deserve clarity on these questions as soon as possible. Those whose jobs rely on our trade with the EU need that clarity.”
Her plan for moving forward, as detailed in a post-vote speech: “First, we need to confirm whether this government still enjoys the confidence of the House. I believe that it does, but given the scale and importance of tonight’s vote, it is right that others have the chance to test that question if they wish to do so.” She also confirmed that, in accordance with a filing under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, her opposition, spearheaded by the Labour Party, will begin debating a no-confidence vote on Wednesday.
May sought to reassure her constituents. “To those who fear that the government’s strategy is to run down the clock to March 29, that is not our strategy,” she said. “I have always believed that the best way forward is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal and have devoted much of the last two years negotiating such a deal.”
Her second reassurance was directed “to the British people, who voted to leave the European Union in the referendum two-and-a-half years ago.”
“I became prime minister immediately after that referendum. I believe it is my duty to deliver on their instruction, and I intend to do so,” May said. “Every day that passes without this issue being resolved means more uncertainty, more bitterness, and more rancor. The government has heard what the House has said tonight, but I ask members on all sides of the House to listen to the British people, who want this issue settled, and to work with the government to do just that.”