LONDON — Time is not on Britain’s side as the clock ticks down to its scheduled March 29 exit from the European Union and its politicians remain paralyzed over how the country should leave.
But, on Thursday, decision day was delayed once again when a critical debate and vote in Parliament that could help break the deadlock was put back until Jan. 29.
Delay has been a frequent tactic of Prime Minister Theresa May, who has gambled that the pressure of a looming deadline for departure would persuade lawmakers to accept her plan for withdrawal, or Brexit.
That hit the rocks this week when her proposals suffered a crushing defeat in Parliament, leaving the country in limbo and suggesting that Mrs. May would have to redraw her plans or surrender leadership to lawmakers.
She subsequently survived a no-confidence motion, and Wednesday evening opened talks with opposition politicians in what she said was an effort to reach a bipartisan accord. But those discussions faltered almost immediately.
Though Mrs. May met leaders of several smaller parties, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, refused to join discussions until Mrs. May ruled out the option of Britain leaving the bloc without any agreement, something that analysts fear would lead to significant economic damage.
Mrs. May, whose overriding goal has been to avoid a split in the Conservative Party over Brexit, has refused to exclude the “no-deal” scenario, knowing that doing so would enrage hard-line, pro-Brexit Conservatives, some of whom are happy to risk economic turmoil in order to secure a clean break with the bloc.
For now, Mrs. May is also sticking with the negotiating red lines that were incorporated in the Brexit plan that had just been rejected in such humiliating fashion by Parliament. Those include an insistence that Britain will not be part of a Europe-wide customs union, which rules out one of the potential moves that could make her plan more attractive to those who want closer ties to the bloc.
The lack of movement from Mrs. May has left the parties that have shown up with little to discuss, and resulted in a familiar spectacle: British politicians blaming each other for problems that none of them have an appetite to try to solve.
On Monday, Mrs. May will have to go back to Parliament to propose a Plan B following her defeat. Though this might be quite similar to her Plan A, she is at least allowing lawmakers to amend it and for votes to be taken on different options, which could help indicate where the balance of support lies.
Only after that vote — now scheduled for Jan. 29 — is real movement likely, something that might come in the form of a vote to exclude the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
Mrs. May could, at that point, try to win back Brexit hard-liners to her deal by warning them that the balance of power in Parliament was tilting away from their position, toward closer ties with the European Union than her plan envisages. Alternatively she could risk splitting her party by opting for a softer, more pro-European Brexit desired by many Labour lawmakers.
Confronted with that political minefield, Mrs. May canceled a planned trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
But the impasse is creating problems for Mr. Corbyn, too, as some of his lawmakers defied instructions not to attend meetings with government ministers until a no-deal Brexit was ruled out.
The lawmakers who did take part seemed largely unimpressed with what they heard. For example, one document produced by officials suggested that it would take a year to organize a second referendum on Brexit — a timeline fiercely disputed by many supporters of that idea.
After meeting Mrs. May, Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish National Party’s lawmakers at Westminster, was scathing.
“These cross-party talks cannot be about cosmetic changes to her already rejected deal, ” he said in a statement. “We must discuss real alternatives and a second referendum must be on the table.”
Orignially published in NYT.