For Britain, the big vote is finally here.
After two and a half years of negotiation, argument, predictions and posturing, Parliament will finally decide on Tuesday on a bill that dictates the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union, one of the most closely watched votes the lawmakers are likely to cast in their careers.
• Prime Minister Theresa May has spent all her energies trying to convince Parliament — and Britain — that the divorce deal she negotiated with Brussels is the best way forward. But she hasn’t made the sale. The House of Commons is expected to defeat the deal by a wide margin, and no one is completely certain what will come next.
• Much is at stake: Britain’s place in Europe, its economic future and possibly the survival of Mrs. May’s Conservative government. Debate should end late this afternoon, with voting scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in London (2 p.m. Eastern).
• For Mrs. May, the vote is an exercise in damage control: A severe loss would make it more difficult to extract additional concessions from the European Union and could prompt a vote of no-confidence.
• Assuming the deal does not pass, Mrs. May must return to Parliament by Monday with a backup plan. If nothing is approved by March 29, Britain would make a “no-deal” departure from the bloc, which could pose dire economic risks. (Many legislators are alarmed about this. Voters, not so much.)
A marathon debate begins its final lap
At long last, the final day of debate on the deal began, with Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, making the government’s case.
Ordinarily, a legislator in that position would face the opposition benches, but Mr. Cox repeatedly turned to address and gesture at critics on the Conservative side of the house, an indication of how steep an uphill battle the government faces.
“Do we opt for order, or do we choose chaos?” he demanded. “What are you playing at? You are not children in the playground.”
Mr. Cox, an esteemed trial lawyer, has a booming voice and formidable rhetorical skill, but he chose an image he may regret. The agreement, he said, is like an airlock connecting one space capsule to another — a brief stop on the way to an as-yet-unknown long-term pact with the European Union.
It took only minutes before opponents seized on the metaphor.
“On the other side of the airlock is a complete vacuum,” said Hilary Benn, a Labour member and chairman of the house’s Brexit committee.
Critics of the deal pressed Mr. Cox to address what would happen after the vote Tuesday night, but he refused to rise to the bait.
Chris Bryant, a Labour member, said, “There isn’t a single chance of the government getting the necessary legislation through by the 29th of March.” — Richard Pérez-Peña
Long-awaited bill faces dim prospects
Since June 2016, when 52 percent of British voters approved a referendum to leave the European Union, everything has built up to the vote on Tuesday. The bill would determine the trade and immigration relationship between Britain and the bloc through the end of 2020, while a permanent agreement is negotiated.
But even before Mrs. May’s deal with Brussels was made public in November, it was clear that Parliament was deeply fragmented on how to move forward. Lawmakers began several days of debate on Prime Minister Theresa May’s bill in December, but she postponed the vote for a month, rather than face a humiliating defeat, as she tried to win new promises from Brussels.
But the parliamentary calculus has not changed. Mrs. May’s Conservative Party is divided over the plan — one of her whips stepped down on Monday so that he could vote against it, the latest in a long string of Brexit-related resignations — and the opposition parties overwhelmingly oppose it.
What happens next?
With Prime Minister Theresa May’s bill expected to lose, the question dominating British politics is: What comes next?
If the agreement is not approved, she would have until Monday to present a backup plan to Parliament. The range of possibilities is wide, unappealing and a bit bewildering.
If the deal loses by a narrow margin, she might be able to win a few concessions from Brussels and bring those revisions to Parliament for a second vote. But if the defeat is a crushing one, that option is likely to be unavailable.
As things now stand, Britain will leave the European Union on March 29. Neither Mrs. May’s government nor the European bloc wants that to happen without an agreement in place — most experts predict that a no-deal Brexit would be chaotic and do severe economic damage.
With little time left to negotiate anew with the European Union, the prime minister may be forced to ask Parliament to postpone Brexit.
She could also call a second referendum, an option favored by lawmakers who hope that British voters have changed their minds. But Mrs. May and the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have both rejected that idea.
Mr. Corbyn wants to force early elections, and seems likely to call for a vote of no confidence in the government, putting the prime minister on the brink.
For businesses, a chance to gain clarity
The vote will provide little of the detail that businesses need to plan their operations, but it could at least narrow the options.
“The longer this Brexit political drama continues, the less and less attractive the U.K. is going to be” to investors, Iain Anderson, the executive chairman of the consulting firm Cicero Group, said last week.
Although many businesses are already preparing for the worst-case scenario — crashing out of the European Union without a deal in place — many have also been vocal in warning against it.
“Make no mistake, no-deal cannot be ‘managed,’ ” Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said last week.
The government has tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to ease public anxiety over how a no-deal scenario would be managed. Last week it created an artificial traffic jam to test how it would manage disruption at the border, an exercise that was widely derided.
Manufacturers remain concerned that a no-deal situation would wreak havoc on just-in-time manufacturing, which relies on goods crossing the British border, sometimes multiple times, and arriving within minutes of assembly. — Amie Tsang
The deal is taking fire from multiple directions
There are many objections to the Brexit bill, making clear that no approach to leaving the European Union commands anything close to majority support.
Hard-line pro-Brexit Conservatives argue that the deal ties Britain much too closely to European trade rules for the foreseeable future. Many even contend that a no-deal exit from the bloc would be preferable.
The 1998 accord that brought peace to Northern Ireland guarantees free movement of goods and people between that part of Britain and the Republic of Ireland, a European Union member. But many Conservatives, and the Democratic Unionist Party, a small group in Northern Ireland allied with the British government, object to the way Mrs. May’s deal would protect that guarantee.
The deal Prime Minister Theresa May reached with Brussels includes a “backstop” that would keep Northern Ireland more closely tied to the bloc than with the rest of Britain if the two sides are unable to reach a long-term agreement by the end of 2020. Critics say that would effectively divide Britain in two.
There are lawmakers in several parties who oppose Brexit in any form and want a second referendum. And Mrs. May has accused the opposition Labour Party of political opportunism, by simply opposing anything her government tries to do. — Richard Pérez-Peña
Parliament speaker is caught in the middle
He’s the unlikeliest star of this season of Brexit, alternately reviled and adored and often on the front page of the tabloids: John Bercow, the House of Commons speaker. His job, as the highest authority in the chamber, is to preside over debates and, mostly, to get members to shut up. The role is supposed to be strictly nonpartisan.
But Mr. Bercow — easily recognizable with his floppy silver hair and booming voice — now finds himself in the position of an umpire who makes a controversial call in the early innings that could wind up tipping the whole game.
Last week, a member of Parliament proposed an amendment requiring Prime Minister Theresa May to return within three days to announce what the government intended to do next if the original deal was rejected. She previously had 21 days to decide.
By Parliament’s arcane rules (it mostly hinged on the meaning of “forthwith”), Mr. Bercow should have rejected that amendment. But he didn’t. And Parliament passed it by a slim margin.
That decision single-handedly tipped the balance of power to Parliament from Mrs. May’s government. The episode made a no-deal exit less likely and will let lawmakers weigh in — quickly — with alternatives.
And Mr. Bercow may not be done yet. Commentators said it could end up being the most radical shift in relations between the government and Parliament since the speaker defied King Charles I in 1642. — Benjamin Mueller
Brussels waits and watches, warily
The Brexit drama — both psychological and political — has left the leaders of the European Union transfixed and horrified. The other 27 member states have their own domestic political considerations, but the vote in London on Tuesday is particularly momentous.
Still, few feel that it will bring any sort of conclusion, and many expect Mrs. May, if she survives, to try to return to Brussels for more talks before a second parliamentary vote and then probably ask for a delay to the legal withdrawal date of March 29.
European officials seem optimistic that the other 27 states would agree, as they must unanimously, to an extension, as long as there is a sense that Britain is on track to reach an agreement before elections for the European Parliament, beginning on May 23. No one wants a “no-deal” Brexit, even if some think it may shake the markets enough to cause Britain to rethink.
Brussels believes strongly that what really matters are the negotiations for a future relationship, which can have most any structure the British Parliament desires, once the divorce is done.
But the European Union, as a voluntary assembly of sovereign states, can only deal with governments. Most want Britain to stay, but they are also fed up with British indecision. And many fear that Mrs. May has lost control over the outcome. — Steven Erlanger
A series of smaller votes will precede the big one
Before Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal gets a vote Tuesday night, the action in Parliament will be about proposed amendments to the bill. More than a dozen were introduced — some to tweak the agreement, others to change it substantially, and still others to kill it.
But the House speaker, John Bercow, who has wide leeway to reject amendments, ruled Tuesday afternoon that only four of them would be considered.
Two of the four amendments, introduced by opposition leaders, are similar: They would scuttle Mrs. May’s deal while also rejecting a “no-deal” exit and committing to pursue other options. There is also an amendment to one of those amendments, specifying that a second referendum should be one of those options.
The other two, also similar to each other, would allow Britain to exit the Irish backstop unilaterally, which would effectively kill the deal, because Brussels considers that condition unacceptable.
One amendment that was backed by the government was rejected by Mr. Bercow, adding fuel to Conservative accusations that he has not been an impartial arbiter on Brexit. The amendment would have guaranteed that Parliament would get a vote down the road on whether to carry out the much-loathed backstop.
It was unclear how that amendment would have affected Brussels’ view of the deal.
Orignially published in NYT.