After two years of grinding negotiations, Theresa May’s plan to take Britain out the European Union went down in flames Tuesday in historic, humiliating fashion — a crushing defeat that not only plunges the United Kingdom into chaos but also imperils the British prime minister’s political future as the deadline for a Brexit deal looms in just 10 weeks.
A raucous Parliament rejected Mrs. May’s Brexit deal by a vote of 432-202 and quickly announced plans to hold a no-confidence vote Wednesday on Mrs. May’s minority Conservative government. An incumbent prime minister hadn’t suffered such a resounding parliamentary loss since the 1920s, political pundits said, and the government now heads into uncharted territory as it faces the real risk of a disorderly Brexit that could unsettle financial markets and permanently reshape British politics.
In Brussels, EU leaders offered little hope that Mrs. May can get a better deal, leaving the U.K. sharply divided among those determined to leave the EU, those who think Mrs. May failed as a negotiator and those who think the close 2016 national referendum to leave the bloc was a mistake and should be dropped altogether.
Questions about future trade and regulatory arrangements with the EU and bitter disagreements over a provision dealing with the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland helped sink the deal, though some critics seem to be opposed to any deal and instead want Brexit to be put up for another vote.
Mrs. May and Labor Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn argued that a “no-deal Brexit” without a detailed exit strategy with the EU would be disruptive and damaging to the economy. Both also voiced opposition to any second referendum, though neither articulated a clear path forward after Tuesday’s vote.
A dejected Mrs. May took to the floor of the House of Commons just after the embarrassing loss and said the government is failing its people.
“Tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what [Parliament] does support,” she said, “nothing about how or even if it intends to honor the decision the British people took on a referendum Parliament decided to hold.”
The sheer scale of the defeat, she acknowledged, warrants another vote on her leadership.
“We need to confirm whether this government still enjoys the support of the House,” she said.
Mrs. May survived a no-confidence vote last month. She is expected to survive Wednesday’s challenge as well.
But even if she remains in power, her critics say, her government is now fatally wounded and cannot be trusted to negotiate with the EU, especially given the monumental stakes and tight time frame.
“She cannot believe that after two years of failure she is capable of negotiating a good deal for the people of this country,” Mr. Corbyn told lawmakers after the vote. “I’m pleased that the motion [of no confidence] will be debated tomorrow so this House can give its verdict on the sheer incompetence of this government.”
Brexit hard-liners said Mrs. May now faces a mandate to get a better deal from Brussels.
“This deal is dead,” said Boris Johnson, Mrs. May’s former foreign minister and one of the loudest voices in the “Leave” camp.
As lawmakers debated in the chamber, The Associated Press reported on dueling demonstrations of chants, drums and music from rival bands of pro-EU and pro-Brexit protesters outside. One group waved blue-and-yellow EU flags; the other brandished “Leave Means Leave” placards.
The shock waves of the vote were felt across Europe. EU leaders urged the U.K. to find a way out of the crisis before it’s too late. Many seemed to hope Britain was ready to rethink the decision to jettison the EU.
“If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted.
In Brussels, EU President Jean-Claude Juncker urged British leaders to continue their work. But he also stressed that with the March 29 Brexit date fast approaching, the EU will make sure it is prepared for a chaotic divorce.
“The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom has increased with this evening’s vote,” he said in a statement. “While we do not want this to happen, the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared.”
Although Mrs. May may hold her office Wednesday, the deep, widespread opposition to her proposal is clear. More than 100 members of her own Conservative Party voted against the deal.
Pro-Brexit critics believe the deal would keep the U.K. too closely tied to the EU through trade and customs agreements. On the other side of the debate, some skeptics argue that Mrs. May hasn’t taken enough precautions to ensure British businesses and workers would be protected from competition with a unified Europe.
Aside from those broad disagreements, the deal’s demise largely can be traced to doubts about the “backstop” — a provision dealing with the land border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Mrs. May’s deal includes a three-year Brexit transition period and gives the U.K. and EU until 2022 to reach a permanent trade and customs deal. If no agreement is reached by then, the backstop would kick in, prohibiting the re-establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
A hard, militarized border was in place from 1968 to 1998 during a time of friction and sectarian violence that engulfed the two sides. More than 3,700 died during that 30-year span.
As long as both are part of the EU, citizens can travel freely between the two countries. But if Northern Ireland is no longer inside the EU, such travel theoretically would become much more difficult.
The backstop would keep EU customs regulations in place past 2022, eliminating the need for a hard border.
But critics believe the backstop would tie the U.K. to EU customs regulations indefinitely by leaving no pathway out after 2022. Mrs. May’s deal says that both the U.K. and EU would have to agree to lift the backstop, something the EU may not do.
That could effectively keep the U.K. from negotiating its separate trade deals with other countries — a prime goal of Brexit supporters. The Trump administration has compounded Mrs. May’s dilemma by suggesting that a separate free trade deal may not be in the cards if Parliament adopts her compromise Brexit blueprint.
Moving forward, most British leaders agree that some sort of a deal must be reached before March 29. Mrs. May’s supporters say the government has done the best it can and that any new deal — whether negotiated by the current prime minister or another — will not be markedly different.
“If this motion were defeated and this deal defeated, this withdrawal agreement will have to return in much the same form,” U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said just before the vote.
Mr. Corbyn also stressed that negotiations must continue.
“No deal must be taken off the table,” he said.