LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May was defeated in a landslide vote on Tuesday in Parliament, where lawmakers rejected her Brexit deal by a vote of 432 to 202 – a pure humiliation for a British leader who has spent the past two years negotiating her failed withdrawal agreement with Brussels.
May stood almost alone, as many in her own party abandoned their leader and left Britain’s future relationship with the European Union unclear.
Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour Party leader, called the loss historic – and unrivaled since the 1920s. He said her process of “delay and denial” had lead to failure. He then introduced a motion of no-confidence, to be debated on Wednesday.
During the evening debate, as the members in the chamber hooted and jeered, the speaker gaveled the members to quiet, complaining of the “noisy and unseemly atmosphere.”
“The House must calm itself. Zen!” John Bercow shouted.
Before the vote, May told Parliament that the choice was plain: support her imperfect, but practical, compromise deal – and the only one that Europe will abide, she stressed – or face the cliff edge of no-deal Brexit. May said that everyone who thought they could go to Brussels and get a better deal was deluding themselves.
But the vote was decisive.
May said she would reach out to members of Parliament to find out what Brexit deal, if any, they would endorse. Her office has been tight-lipped about what alternatives she might offer.
The debate in the chamber before the votes were cast was impassioned.
The rising Labour Party star David Lammy recalled how he had confronted his constituents who sympathized with the violence carried out by rioters in London in 2011. Now he said felt the same duty to confront his neighbors over Brexit.
“Why? Because we have a duty to tell our constituents the truth, even when they passionately disagree ,” Lammy said. “Brexit is a con, a trick, a swindle, a fraud.”
In an emotional speech, Geoffrey Cox, a Conservative lawmaker and the Attorney General, urged the chamber to back May’s deal to avoid legal uncertainties.
“You are not children in the playground, you are legislators – we are playing with people’s lives,” Cox said.
Historians scoured the past for comparisons for the scale of defeat.
Scholars had to go as far back as the 19th century to find a comparable party split and parliamentary defeat – to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s support for Irish home rule in 1886, which cut the Liberal Party in two.
“The events in Parliament today are really quite remarkable,” said Cambridge University political historian Luke Blaxill. “This doesn’t happen.” Meaning, usually British parties fight with one another in Parliament – but members don’t tear their own parties apart.
Outside Parliament on Tuesday, the scene was raucous as thousands of protesters on both sides, many in costumes, gathered to shout at each other – illustrating how unsettled and divisive Brexit remains more than two years after voters opted in a 2016 June referendum to leave the European Union. It was the largest balloting in British history.
Brexiteers banged drums and rang a “liberty” bell, while pro-EU demonstrators handed out “Bollocks to Brexit” stickers in Parliament Square beside two huge video screens set up for the live broadcast of the final speeches and the vote.
Jeff Wyatt, 54, a pro-Brexit voter, held aloft a placard that accused May of treason. Another man in the crowd suggested that the prime minister should face the executioner’s ax.
“For the first time in the history of my country, we’ve got Parliament against the people,” Wyatt said, gesturing at the Palace of Westminster.
Monika Wolf, 57, was clutching an EU flag and a Union Jack. She moved to Britain from Germany in 1981, and studied and raised her children here. In an ideal world, she said, Brexit would be stopped. She hoped to see “more statesmanship from the big parties – they both talk about bringing the country together, but so far they haven’t done anything at all to make that happen.”
Over the past weeks, with growing fervor, May has warned Conservative Party members of Parliament that they gambled all if they voted down her half-in, half-out compromise plan.
The British leader argued that rejection of her plan could bring about a fraught “no-deal” Brexit, loaded with financial risk. Or worse, she warned, opponents of Brexit could succeed in their drive to call for a second referendum on whether to remain in or leave the continental trading bloc.
The prime minister suggested that Brexit supporters might even lose that second vote and be saddled with a bitterly divided nation and the status quo.
“If we don’t vote for this agreement, then we risk playing into the hands of those who do not want Brexit to go ahead,” Environment Secretary Michael Gove told BBC Radio on Tuesday.
But frustration and anger over how May has handled the long, slow negotiations with Brussels has been mounting.
Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, spoke for many when she told the BBC, “Brexit is a complete cluster shambles.”
Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote that it appeared May was hurtling toward “the most shattering rejection of any prime minister in modern times.”
He wrote, “It is a measure of the looking glass world of British politics that a crushing reverse on the most important piece of legislation the prime minister will ever introduce is discussed as a bump in the road rather than as the administration-ending loss it should be.”
Her supporters say May will not resign, despite the crushing defeat. They suggest instead that May might return to Brussels, to seek new concessions over the controversial provisions about the Irish border – or even attempt to reopen talks. It is also possible that she might seek negotiations among all parties in Parliament to see what kind of deal, if any, they could agree upon.
While all this plays out, proponents pushing for a second referendum to break the logjam will continue their efforts.
Rob Ford, a professor of politics at Manchester University, stressed that these were strange times. “Normally, if you were looking at a defeat of 50-plus votes on the number-one item on the government’s agenda, then that would be it. Game over. The prime minister would be gone and the government would probably fall immediately. But that’s clearly not going to happen,” Ford said.
“What Theresa May does now will become less and less relevant to what outcome we get. The key thing to be watching is what Parliament does next and what Labour does next,” he said.
In Brussels, heads were shaking in wonderment at the political chaos enveloping Westminster, and concern continued to grow about the deadlock.
EU diplomats who work on Brexit negotiations warned that they had nothing up their sleeve that could fundamentally shift the debate in Britain. And they said that May has yet to present them with a plan that she can guarantee would pass muster in her own parliament, leaving them puzzled about what precisely Britain wants more than two years into the process and whether they could offer anything to ease the deal over the finish line.
Although EU policymakers have said there would probably be some flexibility about the March 29 deadline for Britain’s exit from the EU, any extension would have to be approved by leaders of all 27 remaining nations in the bloc, and there is little appetite to do so if it would do little to resolve the debate in Britain. Many capitals are bracing for a chaotic British exit and shifting their energies toward preparations to limit the damage.
Leaders said Tuesday that they would be happy to keep talking with May but that no radical changes were on offer.
“I do not think that there are any new solutions being put on the table that have nothing to do with what has already been negotiated and agreed,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters at a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.