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Brexit Live Updates: Parliament Votes to Delay Britain’s E.U. Departure

Category: Europe,World

• With just 15 days left until Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union, and no consensus on how to do it, Parliament voted on Thursday to postpone the fast-approaching departure date.

• By the narrowest of margins, Prime Minister Theresa May beat back a power play by lawmakers who wanted to wrest control of the Brexit process from her. They also voted against holding a second referendum on the matter.

• Parliament has twice rejected Mrs. 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. She plans a third attempt at passing her preferred agreement next week.

Lawmakers voted 412 to 202 on Thursday to seek a delay in Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, a move that means the country almost certainly will not leave the bloc on schedule on March 29.

The decision comes at the end of two years of tortuous negotiations over a plan for withdrawal that Prime Minister Theresa May has failed twice to push through Parliament, leaving the process in limbo with just 15 days to go.

During that period Mrs. May had insisted that she would take her country out of the European Union on March 29, with or without a deal. But facing a mutiny from her own lawmakers, Mrs. May finally agreed to offer Parliament the option of seeking a delay.

In practical terms, the vote today means that Mrs. May will request a postponement when she attends a meeting of European Union leaders next week in Brussels. All 27 of the other members of the bloc would need to agree to extend the exit process.

Many experts say the European Union is likely to grant an extension, though how long it would last is less certain.

Mrs. May has said that if Parliament can agree on a deal in the next few days, the delay need be only a short one of two to three months. But if it fails to do so, she would then be forced to request a longer extension, possibly to the end of 2020.

Lawmakers made their strongest bid yet to seize control of the Brexit process from Prime Minister Theresa May, but failed by a razor-thin vote of 314 to 312.

The measure would have had Parliament take a series of “indicative votes” on what it wants to see in a Brexit deal. Though the votes would not have been binding on the government or Mrs. May, who is already caught between warring factions, politically, they would have constrained her even further.

But by the slimmest of margins, Mrs. May scored a rare legislative victory in this season of setbacks for her government, retaining her battered control of the government’s position in negotiations with the European Union.

For Mrs. May, the trouble all along has been that even if most lawmakers support Brexit as a broad concept, they disagree vehemently on the specifics. Twice, she has brought to Parliament the agreement she reached in painstaking negotiations with the European Union, and twice lawmakers have rejected it by wide margins.

Had Parliament taken control, it could have gravitated to a softer Brexit, keeping closer ties to the Continent than she called for in her plan. That would have enraged pro-Brexit hard-liners in her Conservative Party, not just lawmakers but the rank and file as well.

The British Parliament on Thursday rejected a measure calling for a second referendum on Brexit, dashing — for now — some activists’ hopes that Britons would reverse themselves and vote to remain in the European Union.

The amendment seemed doomed from the beginning, as the notion of a second referendum has never commanded a majority in Parliament. It was dealt a staggering blow earlier in the day, when the biggest campaigners for a public vote urged members of Parliament to vote against the measure, saying that Thursday’s focus should be solely on delaying Brexit.

The Labour Party, always leery of a second referendum, quickly announced its opposition, too, though individual lawmakers walked a careful line in trying to maintain they supported a second referendum in other circumstances.

“Today is not about the Labour Party saying it wouldn’t support such an amendment,” Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, said in Parliament Thursday afternoon. “It’s about saying today’s about extension.”

The measure failed on a vote of 334 to 85, with more than 200 lawmakers not voting.

The selection of amendments to vote on is the task of the speaker, John Bercow, who has infuriated Brexit hard-liners by declining to schedule a vote on a measure intended to exclude the possibility of a second referendum.

The collapse of discipline in Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has been so severe lately that some of her lawmakers say that the best thing she could do is to announce her departure day from Downing Street.

But far from planning her resignation, Mrs. May is not yet ready to give up on her own Brexit plan, whatever Parliament does on Thursday.

She has been defeated on it twice before — and badly — but it’s not impossible that she is lucky on the third time.

If a key amendment passes on Thursday, lawmakers would hold quick-fire “indicative” votes on alternative Brexit plans on Wednesday. But Mrs. May would have Monday or Tuesday to pre-empt them and bring her unloved plan back to Parliament.

Ardent Brexit supporters now know that Parliament is opposed to leaving without any agreement, something they would happily see. They will also worry that, if Parliament holds indicative votes on Wednesday, a consensus could emerge for a plan that keeps much closer ties to the European Union than they want.

Mrs. May turned the screw on them this week by stating bluntly that, if there is no support for any deal before next week’s European Union summit, she would be forced to apply for a long delay to Brexit.

That would increase the prospects of a second referendum, and could mean that Brexit might never happen.

Not all hard-liners see anything to fear from a long delay, however. Some believe Mrs. May’s days are numbered, and that a more pro-Brexit successor — perhaps Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary — would control what happened next.

Delaying Brexit could only happen with the consent of the European Union, and in recent days opinion among its leaders seemed to harden. Many saw little room for further negotiations, suggesting only a general election or a second Brexit referendum would justify letting Britain postpone its departure by more than a few months.

That seemed to shift on Thursday when Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said European leaders should be “open to a long extension” of Britain’s membership.

The comments will give weight to Mrs. May’s threat to pro-Brexit politicians: Unless they back her deal in a third vote next week, they face a long delay to Brexit, during which opinion might shift toward a deal keeping closer ties with the bloc, or even another referendum.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, suggested that even a 21-month extension was a possibility, bringing the date of Britain’s departure to the end of 2020.

Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted that the possibility of a no-deal Brexit should remain 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.

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.

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.

President Trump has been allied with some of the most ardent proponents of a no-deal Brexit, like Nigel Farage. And supporters of Brexit have held up a trade deal with the United States as one of the prizes of a comprehensive break with the European Union.

British lawmakers’ decisions in recent days have made that sort of hard Brexit — and that sort of wide-ranging trade deal — significantly less likely. On Thursday morning, Mr. Trump sounded an optimistic note on Twitter.

Later, however, at an Oval Office photo session with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland, his tone on the subject was less sunny.

“I’m not going to comment on Brexit. I can tell you it’s a very complex thing that’s gong on right now,” he said, adding, “it’s tearing a lot of countries apart. And it’s a shame it has to be that way. I think we will stay right in our lane.”

A kerfuffle broke out on Thursday afternoon among the ranks of advocates for a second Brexit referendum, with the Labour Party once again facing accusations of selling out the pro-European cause.

The source of the tension was an amendment, to be voted on Thursday night, that says Brexit should be delayed so the country can vote again.

But the biggest campaigners for a second referendum are not, it turns out, backing the amendment to hold a second referendum. And that gave Labour leaders, forever on to the fence when it comes to Brexit, all the cover they needed not to do so either.

The reason, ostensibly, was that the focus on Thursday should be on delaying Brexit. Anti-Brexit campaigners want to hold off on a vote for a second referendum in Parliament until it is among the last options standing.

But underlying that was the reality that a second referendum does not at the moment command a majority in Parliament, and its backers did not want it to go to a losing vote.

Still, some activists wish pro-European politicians would take a page from Mrs. May’s book about the value of repeat votes. Rather than holding off until the last moment, they say, politicians should vote for a second referendum again and again until it wins.

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.”

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