explainer

'A humiliating loss.' The Brexit deal just got voted down in UK parliament. So now what?

British MPs have defeated Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit divorce deal by a crushing margin, triggering political chaos that could lead to a disorderly exit from the EU or even to a reversal of the 2016 decision to leave.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn promptly called a vote of no confidence in May’s government, to be held on Wednesday, after parliament voted 432-202 against her deal.

With the clock ticking down to March 29, the date set in law for Brexit, the United Kingdom is now ensnared in the deepest political crisis in half a century as it grapples with how, or even whether, to exit the European project that it joined in 1973.

“It is clear that the House does not support this deal, but tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support,” May told parliament, moments after the result was announced.

“… nothing about how – or even if – it intends to honour the decision the British people took in a referendum parliament decided to hold.”

More than 100 of May’s own Conservative lawmakers – both Brexiteers and supporters of EU membership – joined forces to vote down the deal, leading to the worst parliamentary defeat for a government in recent British history.

The humiliating loss, the first British parliamentary defeat of a treaty since 1864, marks the collapse of her two-year strategy of forging an amicable divorce with close ties to the EU after the March 29 exit.

So… what now?

May’s spokesman told reporters that May’s deal could still form the basis of an agreement with the EU, but opponents disagreed.

“The EU will see that it must now offer better terms to the UK. If it does not, we must leave to trade on WTO terms,” David Jones, a Conservative pro-Brexit former minister, said.

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The small Northern Irish DUP party, which props up May’s minority government and refused to back the deal, said it would still stand behind May in the no-confidence vote. The pro-Brexit Conservatives who were the most vehement opponents of her deal also said they would support her.

The EU said the Brexit deal remained the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said there would be no further renegotiation of the agreement and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it would intensify preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Donald Tusk, the chairman of EU leaders, suggested Britain should now consider reversing Brexit.

“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?” he tweeted.

The Sterling currency rallied more than a cent against the US dollar, on some expectations that the scale of the defeat might force lawmakers to pursue other options.

May said she would reach out to opposition parties to forge a way ahead. But across the British political spectrum, opponents of her deal said it was dead.

Ever since Britain voted by 52-48 per cent to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016, the political class has been debating how to leave the European project forged by France and Germany after the devastation of World War Two.

While the country is divided over EU membership, most agree that the world’s fifth largest economy is at a crossroads and that its choices over Brexit will shape the prosperity of future generations.

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