Britain’s Parliament has delivered a crushing verdict on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit divorce deal, rejecting it by 432 votes to 202 – the biggest defeat suffered by a government in modern British political history.
That leaves the country’s EU exit process in crisis, with just 10 weeks until it is due to leave the bloc on March 29.
Despite that vote, May’s government survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament on Wednesday. Now, she has until the start of next week to come back to Parliament with a Plan B.
Here’s a look at what might happen next.
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After Tuesday’s defeat, May assured the House of Commons that “the House has spoken and the government will listen.” She plans to hold talks with lawmakers from across the political spectrum before announcing a new plan.
But May’s office has downplayed the prospect of major changes to the deal that has been negotiated.
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That means May could return to Parliament next week with a tweaked deal that is only slightly different to the previous one. But that is unlikely to win over many opponents of the agreement.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said most leaders who had suffered a defeat on this scale would be “either resigning or looking to trash the deal that they’d got and do something utterly different.”
May, however, has proven stubbornly resistant to changing her Brexit “red lines.”
“It looks as if we’re just going to get more of the same and that she’ll come back in a week or so’s time with nothing substantially different from what we’ve got now,” Bale said.
Only a substantially new proposal from Britain is likely to receive consideration from the EU. Leaders of the bloc have signalled that they would welcome a softer Brexit deal that saw Britain remain part of the bloc’s customs union or single market for goods and services.
May has always ruled that out, saying it would deliver what Britons voted for in the 2016 EU membership referendum. But some lawmakers think they can win majority support for the idea in Parliament, and “soft Brexit” is picking up steam.
With Parliament split, there is a growing chance Britain will seek an extension to the two-year exit process that is due to expire on March 29.
Some ministers are urging May to delay Brexit and then consult lawmakers in a series of “indicative votes” to see if a majority can be found for a new plan. And various factions of lawmakers are exploring ways to use parliamentary rules to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government.
A delay would likely also be needed in the event of two other possible scenarios: a general election, or a second referendum. Any delay to the date of Brexit would require unanimous approval from leaders of the EU’s remaining 27 member states.
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Immediately after Tuesday’s vote in Parliament, opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called a no-confidence vote in the government, to be held Wednesday evening.
If the government loses, Britain is facing an election for a new Parliament and government. The government is likely to survive, however. Almost all members of the governing Conservatives say they will support May, as will her parliamentary allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Labour says it will keep trying to force an election, and could attempt more no-confidence votes in the coming weeks.
The campaign to revisit Brexit in a second referendum – driven largely by supporters of the losing “remain” side in the 2016 referendum – has been gathering steam as the pitfalls and complexity of the divorce process become clear.
The government is firmly opposed, but many lawmakers believe a new referendum may be the only way out of the Brexit impasse.
But it’s unclear what the question would be. Many pro-EU politicians want a choice between leaving on the proposed terms and staying in the EU, but others say leaving without a deal should also be an option.
There’s a strong chance any new referendum would be as divisive as the first.
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This is the outcome few want – but it is also the default option. If the divorce deal is not approved, altered or put on hold, Britain will cease to be an EU member at 11 p.m. London time on March 29.
The Bank of England has warned that tumbling out of the bloc with no deal to soften the exit could plunge Britain into its deepest recession in nearly a century, and businesses warn the sudden end to longstanding trading agreements with the EU could see gridlock at British ports and shortages of food and medicines.
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