A day after British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit divorce bill was rejected in a bruising 149-vote defeat, MPs returned to the House of Commons on Wednesday to vote on whether to prevent the UK's exit from the European Union by the March 29 deadline without any deal in place.
The latest motion to try and avert the no-deal Brexit, which would see UK crash out of the 28-member economic bloc without any transition phase, follows a rejection of May's withdrawal agreement 391 to 242 despite a final push by her to try and convince hard-Brexiteers that the concessions she had won to the controversial Irish backstop clause would not see the UK tied to EU rules indefinitely. "I may not have my own voice, but I understand the voice of the country," May said as she took to the Commons despatch box for her weekly Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday, still struggling with a sore throat. "I believe we have a good deal. No deal is better than a bad deal but I have been working for us to leave on 29 March and leave with a good deal," she said.
The motion tabled by her to be voted on Wednesday evening reads: "This House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework on the future relationship on 29 March." Besides, Speaker John Bercow announced that MPs will debate on two amendments to the government motion during yet another long day at Parliament in Westminster.
While one amendment will consider ruling out a no-deal Brexit indefinitely, the second one will direct the government to pursue a Plan B divorce strategy. May will whip her MPs to vote against the first amendment, which is tabled by the backbench Conservative MP Caroline Spelman and Opposition Labour MP Jack Dromey and seeks to remove a phrase from the government's motion saying a no-deal Brexit remains the default option if a deal is not in place. However, her party MPs will be allowed to vote freely on the Plan B amendment, which seeks a so-called managed no-deal Brexit. If, as expected, MPs reject a no-deal Brexit on March 29 in the final vote on the government motion, May will have to announce how she plans to proceed. Rival groups of MPs are therefore seeking to influence the process by tabling amendments to any motion the government brings at this stage.
If, on the other hand, MPs vote in favour of a no-deal exit from the EU, then the UK will cease to be a member of the economic bloc by March 29 and automatically revert to World Trade Organisation (WTO) norms on trade. Speaking moments after yet another Parliament defeat over Brexit on Tuesday night, May said MPs would have to decide whether they want to delay Brexit, hold another referendum, or whether they "want to leave with a deal but not this deal".
While some hard-Brexiteers such as former Cabinet minister Boris Johnson are in favour of a no-deal exit, there is unlikely to be a majority for it in Parliament. The Opposition Labour Party has been demanding no-deal be taken off the table for months now. If no-deal is rejected, MPs will then vote on Thursday on delaying Brexit by extending Article 50 – the legal mechanism that takes the UK out of the EU. This would have to be ratified by the EU and the length of extension will become the next focus on both sides. However, how the EU will react to an extension request remains unclear at this stage, given that it is preparing for its own EU elections towards the end of May. The EU side has expressed dismay at the agreement being rejected by Britain for a second time since the last vote in January and said it would need "a credible justification" before agreeing to any extension. Unless agreed otherwise, Britain leaving the EU by March 29 remains the default Brexit option by law. With that in mind, the UK government also unveiled plans for trade across borders under such a scenario.
As a temporary measure, most imports into the UK would not attract a tariff in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the UK's Department for International Trade (DIT) announced. Under a temporary scheme 87 per cent of imports by value would be eligible for zero-tariff access – up from 80 per cent at present. The government also announced it will not introduce any new checks or controls, or require customs declarations for any goods, moving from across the border from Ireland to Northern Ireland if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
The move comes amid a hectic week in politics at Westminster, when MPs have a flurry of crucial decisions before them that would determine UK's future with the EU. Although May managed to convince about 40 Tory MPs to change their mind since her historic 230-vote defeat on the Brexit withdrawal deal in January, she failed to get it through the Commons finish line.
The Irish backstop, an insurance policy designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland between UK territory Northern Ireland and EU member-state – the Republic of Ireland – proved insurmountable in the end, despite some "legally binding" changes May hoped would be enough for the second vote on the agreement this week. The March-end deadline had kicked in when the UK triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty following a referendum in favour of Brexit by nearly 52 per cent to 48 per cent in June 2016. Unless MPs are able to rule out leaving by March 29 without any exit strategy or agreed terms, the UK is set to crash out of the bloc leading to deep uncertainties for businesses relying on cross-border arrangements.