British Prime Minister Theresa May will press on with talks to secure support for her Brexit deal, her spokesman said on Friday, just minutes after Parliament rejected it for a third time.
Britain is now due to leave the EU on April 12, but her political spokesman said the smaller margin of defeat showed that things were moving in the right direction and that a number of senior Conservatives had voted with the government.
“Clearly it wasn’t the result we wanted,” the spokesman told reporters. “But, that said, we have had a number of senior Conservative colleagues who have felt able to vote with the government today… clearly there’s also more work to do but in point of fact, we are at least going in the right direction.”
After a special sitting of Parliament, lawmakers voted 344-286 against Ms. May’s 585-page EU Withdrawal Agreement, agreed after two years of tortuous negotiations with the bloc.
The defeat means that Britain now has until April 12 to convince the 27 capitals of the EU that it has an alternative path out of the impasse, or see itself cast out of the bloc from that date with no deal on post-Brexit ties with its largest trading ally.
Ms. May had told Parliament the vote was the last opportunity to ensure Brexit would take place. She cautioned that if the deal failed, then any further delay to Brexit would probably be a long one beyond April 12. “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House,” Ms. May told Parliament after the defeat. “The implications of the Houses decision are grave.”
“The legal default now is that the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on 12th April,” she said.
It was a third failure for Ms. May, who had offered on Wednesday to resign if the deal passed, in a bid to win over eurosceptic rebels in her Conservative Party who support a more decisive break with the EU than the divorce her deal offers.
It leaves Ms. May’s Brexit strategy in tatters. With no majority in Parliament for any Brexit option so far, it is unclear what Ms. May will now do. Options include asking the EU for a long delay, Parliament forcing an election, or a “no-deal” exit.
French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking as parliament voted, said the EU needed to accelerate no-deal planning.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters: “One of the two routes to an orderly Brexit seems now to be closed. This leaves only the other route, which is for the British to make clear what they want before April 12.”
“The risk of a no-deal Brexit is very real,” he said.
Ms. May’s deal had twice been rejected by huge margins this year and, although she was able to win over many Conservative rebels, a hard core of eurosceptics and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her minority government, refused to back it.
Next Monday, lawmakers who have tried to grab control of the process will attempt to agree on an alternative Brexit plan that could command majority cross-party support in parliament, something largely unheard-of in Britain’s political system.
Many eurosceptics see a no-deal exit as their preferred option but businesses say it would cause huge damage not only to the world’s fifth-biggest economy, but also to that of neighbouring Ireland.
However, any further extension would not only require Britain to take part in European Parliament elections in May, but also bring months of fresh uncertainty.
A second referendum could then be in play, although many lawmakers believe the most likely outcome and only way to solve the crisis will be a snap election.
The 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU revealed a United Kingdom divided over many more issues, and has provoked impassioned debate about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and what it means to be British.
Meanwhile the uncertainty around Brexit has left allies and investors aghast.
Opponents fear Brexit will make Britain poorer and divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
Supporters say that, while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed attempt to forge European unity.