Theresa May warned MPs on Wednesday (13 March) that she could be forced to request a lengthy extension to Brexit talks, which would mean UK involvement in the European elections in May, after suffering another parliamentary defeat to her Brexit plans.
UK lawmakers voted by a 321 to 273 margin to rule out leaving the EU without an exit deal in any circumstances on Wednesday evening, after another confusing day of claim and counter-claim in Westminster.
The move paves the way for lawmakers to demand an extension to the Article 50 process on Thursday, and for a series of ‘indicative votes’ on what sort of Brexit deal would be able to pass the UK parliament.
Following the vote, May warned that unless MPs backed a Brexit deal by next Wednesday before she departs for an EU Council summit, she would be forced to negotiate a “much longer extension” than three months, which would involve the UK taking part in May’s European elections.
“I do not think that would be the right outcome,” May added.
Eleven government ministers abstained, despite the government line being to reject the motion and keep the option of ‘no deal’ on the table.
However, since the vote by MPs was on a motion rather than legislation, it does not rule out the possibility of a ‘no deal’ scenario.
“The only way you can do that is by passing a deal, or revoking article 50,” said Environment Secretary Michael Gove, one of the leaders of the vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, who presented the government’s position.
A European Commission spokesperson played down the significance of the vote.
“There are only two ways to leave the EU, with or without a deal. To take no deal off the table it is not enough to vote against no deal – you have to agree to a deal,” he said.
Several ministers have indicated that lawmakers will be able to hold ‘indicative votes’ in the coming days on the sort of Brexit deal they would be most likely to support.
‘Sledgehammer for economy’
Chancellor Philip Hammond, who presented his Spring Economic forecast earlier in the day, hinted that MPs would have “the opportunity to start to map out a way forward towards building a consensus across this house for a deal we can collectively support, to exit the EU in an orderly way.”
But that leaves all Brexit options on the table. Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Sir Keir Starmer, told MPs that his party remains committed to a second referendum. However, the opposition party still remains divided between those who favour a Norway-style deal, where the UK would leave the EU but remain in the single market or customs union, and those who back a second referendum.
Hammond warned that a no-deal Brexit would deliver “a significant short- to medium-term reduction in the productive capacity of the British economy”.
In the meantime, the government stepped up its contingency planning for a ‘no deal’ scenario by announcing plans to slash tariffs to zero on 87% of goods imports as a temporary response should the UK leave the EU without a deal.
That prompted a furious response from business leaders, who complained that they had not been consulted on the measures and, with barely two weeks until the UK is set to exit the EU, would not be able to prepare themselves.
Carolyn Fairbarn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, described the move as a “sledgehammer for our economy”.