• With a March 29 deadline fast approaching and no consensus in Britain on a deal, Parliament will vote at around 5 p.m. Thursday on whether to push back the country’s scheduled date of departure from the European Union.
• Lawmakers have twice rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed withdrawal agreement by resounding margins. They hemmed her in further on Wednesday by passing a measure opposing any attempt to leave without an agreement.
• Mrs. May remains in power but is seriously compromised. Many Conservatives backed the anti-no-deal motion, against her wishes, and several members of her cabinet declined to vote against it, leading to speculation she has lost control of her party and the process.
Britain tries to buy some time
After months of bluster and grandstanding, of threats and political backstabbing, Parliament is paralyzed, meaning that lawmakers are now likely to try to stop the clock before the March 29 deadline. Parliament is returning on Thursday for a third consecutive day of Brexit voting, and it is widely assumed that lawmakers will support a measure to seek a delay.
But if voting for a delay postpones the deadline, it also creates new problems.
First, any delay would require approval from the other 27 member states of the European Union. And the big question is what sort of delay would be granted, and what would it accomplish.
Many experts say the European Union is likely to grant an extension, though how long it would last is less certain. Some supporters of Brexit fear that extending the deadline too far into the future could mean that the departure never happens. But a short delay would bring its own problems.
Elections for the European Parliament are scheduled to begin on May 23, so if the deadline is postponed beyond that date, Britain would be required to elect European lawmakers, even as it tried to finalize its departure from the bloc. Awkward.
Moreover, it took more than two years for Mrs. May’s government to negotiate her deal with Brussels. If a majority somehow emerges for a new exit deal, such a proposal would have to be negotiated with Brussels, and no one thinks a new deal could be accomplished by late May, assuming Brussels would even play ball.
For now, the European Union, despite some tweaks earlier this week, has essentially told Britain that its offer is of the take-it-or-leave-it variety. Many European leaders have suggested Britain would need to explain what it planned to do differently — and how the new plan would pass Parliament — before they would grant an extension.
And that points to a more fundamental issue: British lawmakers have said they oppose leaving without a deal, a prospect they say could cause catastrophic damage to the economy, chaos at ports and shortages of food and medicine. But unless they actually vote for a deal, that is still what’s scheduled to happen. On its own, an extension would just change the date of the reckoning.
May struggles to keep control
Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted that the possibility of a no-deal Brexit remains an option, arguing that to remove it from her negotiating arsenal would deny her leverage in dealing with the European Union.
Still, when Parliament convened on Wednesday, she supported the motion asking lawmakers to state that they were opposed to leaving the European Union on March 29 unless there was a deal in place. But Parliament went one step further and voted against leaving the bloc without a deal under any circumstances, at any time — a sharp rebuke to Mrs. May.
It was not the first time that members of Mrs. May’s own party have defied her, and there’s little reason to suspect that it will be the last.
On Tuesday, lawmakers soundly rejected, 391 votes to 242, the deal that Mrs. May had negotiated with European Union officials, including last-minute changes intended to persuade recalcitrant, pro-Brexit lawmakers who were concerned that Britain could be subjected to some of the bloc’s economic rules indefinitely.
It speaks to Mrs. May’s uphill struggle that there was a tiny silver lining in that 149-vote defeat: It was less emphatic than the first vote on the deal, in January, which lost by 230 votes, an astonishing margin in a 650-seat Parliament.
British governments rarely lose significant parliamentary votes, but Mrs. May has survived several Brexit-related setbacks — and a stream of cabinet resignations — that would ordinarily spell the end of a prime minister’s tenure.
But whispers of a strategy are proving true
Back in February, a television journalist sitting at a hotel bar in Brussels overheard Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, talking with colleagues. The journalist picked up what he described as an “extraordinary” admission, one that flew in the face of Prime Minister Theresa May’s public promises.
The plan, Mr. Robbins said, was for the government in March to present uncompromising Brexit supporters with an unpleasant choice: vote for Mrs. May’s reworked deal, or endure a significant delay to the process.
Britain’s political class was instantly abuzz. The foreign secretary denied there was any such plan. Mrs. May had until then insisted that Britain was leaving the European Union on March 29, and that any delay was unthinkable.
Well, fast forward to today, and Mrs. May is doing exactly as Mr. Robbins predicted. For all the chaos and humiliation of the past two days, parts of Mrs. May’s strategy appear to be perfectly on track.
Mrs. May said members of Parliament could back her tweaked plan in a third vote and depart the bloc after a short, technical extension. Or they could defy her again and be forced to wait out a “much longer extension.”
A potential surprise lurks in Parliament’s rule book
Among the curve balls thrown in the House of Commons on Wednesday was the assertion that the speaker, John Bercow, technically has the right to stop the government from bringing back the withdrawal agreement, rejected twice by large majorities, for a third vote.
The legal basis for this proposition lies deep within the Parliament’s rule book, the work of an assiduous 19th-century clerk named Erskine May. On Page 397, the rule book says that motions or amendments which are “the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
In the flurry of constitutional nerdiness that followed, it emerged that the most recent House of Commons clerk had thrown cold water on this idea back in October.
“That rule is not designed to obstruct the will of the House,” said the clerk, Sir David Natzler. In other words, Mr. Bercow — a consistent champion of the rights of backbenchers — would hardly obstruct a third vote if lawmakers really wanted the chance to vote on it.
“It would be ridiculous for him to apply a rule, a literal construction of a rule, if it frustrated what the House wants,” said Jack Simson Caird, a former House of Commons scholar who is a senior research fellow at the Bingham Center for the Rule of Law.
The question was the subject of much debate Thursday morning, with most commentators concluding that Mr. Bercow — who opposed Brexit in the referendum, and has proved his willingness to frustrate Mrs. May’s agenda — was nonetheless unlikely to lob this particular hand grenade at her.
That said, we are in strange constitutional times, with Parliament seeking a way to play a role as the countdown to Brexit reaches its last stage.“It’s totally unprecedented,” Mr. Caird said. “The system really can’t cope with what’s being demanded of it.”
The pound wobbles over Brexit uncertainty
The vote on Wednesday to reject a no-deal Brexit pushed the pound to its highest level since June 2018. The value of the pound would be expected to drop if Britain leaves without a deal, and the vote reflected concerns on the part of lawmakers and their desire to try to prevent it.
Still, the continued uncertainty could lead to more volatility in the British currency, as members of Parliament hash out the delay to Brexit. The pound pared its gains after Wednesday night’s vote and was hovering at about $1.32 by Thursday morning.
“Overall, this week’s Brexit developments have supported our view that the direction of travel is toward a delayed and potentially softer Brexit which has been supporting a stronger pound,” analysts at Mitsubishi UFG Bank wrote in a note this morning. But they warned, “Political developments are also becoming increasingly uncertain.”
Businesses join chorus against ‘no deal’
The vote against a no-deal Brexit has provided some assurance to businesses, which expressed their dismay on Wednesday after the government published details of a temporary tariff regime, which it said it would impose in the event of such a departure.
The measures involved getting rid of tariffs on most goods imported to Britain, with a few exceptions such as lamb and ceramics. The temporary regime would not have applied to goods crossing from Ireland to Northern Ireland, where the government wanted to avoid having to put in control points at the border.
“The balanced approach will help to support British jobs and avoid potential price increases that would hit the poorest households the hardest,” George Hollingbery, the trade policy minister, said.
Angela McGowan, the director for Northern Ireland at the Confederation of British Industry, said in a statement on Wednesday that the government’s proposals were “confused at best, disingenuous at worst.”
“There are serious questions over deliverability, and potentially consequences for the island of Ireland on smuggling and tariff proposals,” she added.
The National Farmers Union welcomed the protection for goods like beef and lamb, but said food businesses would not have had time to prepare in the event of a no-deal exit on March 29.