British Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed that a crucial parliamentary vote on Brexit scheduled on Dec. 11 will be delayed, throwing the timeline of Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. into question.
As it became clear the vote would be “rejected by a significant margin,” she told lawmakers in a statement in the House of Commons, “the government has made the decision to defer the vote.”
Lawmakers had been set to vote on a withdrawal deal agreed last month between Theresa May and E.U. leaders, that would set out the terms of departure scheduled for March 29, 2019. However, many members of parliament or MPs (including some within May’s own Conservative Party) had warned they were unlikely to vote for the deal. News of the delay sent the pound tumbling to a seven-month low against the dollar.
On Nov. 25, negotiations between the E.U. and the U.K. ended with an agreement approved by the E.U. leaders as the “best and only deal possible.” The deal set out the legal terms of the divorce, including the total of outstanding payments to the E.U. budget by the U.K., the rights of citizens and the status of Northern Ireland.
But British MPs seemed unconvinced by the deal ahead of the parliamentary vote to approve it. Many focused criticism on the so-called ‘backstop’ arrangement, under which (in the absence of agreed solutions) the U.K. as a whole would remain subject to certain E.U. rules. Some lawmakers believe the backstop, designed to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, could see the U.K. tied to the E.U., and thus unable to strike trade deals with other countries, in perpetuity.
In a statement, opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the vote’s postponement was evidence that “we don’t have a functioning government.”
“The government is in disarray,” he said in the House of Commons. “The Prime Minister is trying to buy herself one last chance to save this deal. If she doesn’t take on board the fundamental changes required, she must make way for those who can.”
What happens next is unclear. May might now seek to return to EU leaders to tweak the deal before asking for Parliament’s approval once again. But there is also a chance that a coalition of disgruntled MP’s from across the political divide could lodge a motion of no confidence in the government, in order to force May’s resignation, or an early general election.
A second referendum, or Britain leaving the E.U. with no deal at all, are among the other possible permutations. The threat of a no-deal Brexit might yet persuade EU leaders to give more concessions to May, according to Lucy Thomas, Senior Director and Head of Brexit Advice at Edelman.
“Brussels have said this deal is as good as it gets – but they have to say that,” she said. “The UK doesn’t want this deal, but nor does it want a no-deal – and it’s in the interests of everyone, Brussels included, for there to be a deal.”
May has consistently ruled out the prospect of a second referendum, which has the support of a growing number of lawmakers in both main parties. On Monday, she did so again. “The vast majority of this house accept the result of the referendum and want to leave with a deal. We have a responsibility to discharge [it],” she said. “If we will the ends, we must also will the means.”
The European Court of Justice earlier ruled the UK could cancel Brexit altogether, and do so without the permission of the other 27 EU members. Crucially, Britain could only do this if an exit deal hadn’t already been agreed upon.