British lawmakers reject Theresa May's Brexit plan for second time

Kim Hjelmgaard

LONDON – Britain's attempt to leave the European Union was again thrown into disarray Tuesday after lawmakers rejected for a second time Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular plan for exiting the bloc. 

Lawmakers voted 391-242 against the deal, the second time they have defeated it in as many months. The loss means increased political and business uncertainly.

In a statement, May said lawmakers over the following two days would be given the option to vote to leave the EU without an agreement – an idea likely to be rejected – or to ask the EU to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled departure date of March 29. 

Britain's Parliament does have the authority to unilaterally revoke Brexit. 

"This is an issue of grave importance for the future of our country," May said. 

May's defeat followed last-minute talks with the EU on Monday, when she announced that the biggest roadblock to her Brexit divorce deal had been removed: legally binding changes relating to the status of Ireland's border with Northern Ireland. 

Tuesday, she needed to persuade skeptical British lawmakers to back her withdrawal agreement with the EU after they overwhelmingly rejected it in January.

"The danger for those of us who want to have faith in the British public and deliver on their vote for Brexit is that if this vote is not passed tonight, if this deal is not passed, then Brexit could be lost," May told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Tuesday. 

Britain is scheduled to leave the EU in less than three weeks. Tuesday's vote was one of the last opportunities for May to get backing for her agreement from Parliament. 

"In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. It is what you do with this second chance that counts. Because there will be no third chance," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a news conference with May late Monday. 

The European Commission is the EU's executive branch. Juncker warned Britain there would be no new negotiations if lawmakers rejected the deal again.

More: 'Bewildering, dire, disastrous': Queen has a Brexit escape plan

May sought changes to the agreement with the EU to overcome lawmakers' concerns about a mechanism in her withdrawal deal designed to keep an open border between Britain’s Northern Ireland and Ireland, a member of the EU.

EU-facilitated frictionless trade and travel across this border is a key cog in ensuring peace between Northern Ireland’s Irish Catholic community and its British Protestant one. It underpins the Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal in 1998 between the British and Irish governments and political parties in Northern Ireland.

The mechanism negotiated by May, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep Britain in a customs union with the EU until a new trade deal is in place. Supporters of Brexit fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely, thus significantly watering down its exit from the bloc.

May has not been able to win parliamentary approval for her deal with the bloc on withdrawal terms and future relations. The impasse has raised fears of a chaotic "no-deal" Brexit that could mean major disruption for businesses and people in Britain and the EU's other 27 members.  

Models of prominent Brexit politicians are driven past the Houses of Parliament in London on March 12, 2019.

May is under mounting pressure to quit, although she can't technically be forced from office for another year because she survived a bid to oust her through a no-confidence vote in December. 

Geoffrey Cox, Britain's attorney general, published a legal interpretation of the concessions May claimed from the EU. Cox said the changes to May's deal "reduced" the risk of Britain being indefinitely marooned in the backstop but the extra assurances she was given were not sufficient to rule it out. 

The pound, which had risen on hopes the deal would be passed, slumped by more than 1 percent against the dollar after Cox’s assessment, to trade at $1.3108.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government, said "sufficient progress has not been achieved" on the issue of the Irish border.

The European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservatives, which has dozens of lawmakers as members, said the amendments "do not deliver 'legally binding changes' "  to the withdrawal agreement as the government promised.

"In light of our own legal analysis and others, we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today," group member Bill Cash said.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the result of the vote meant that May should call a general election. She has faced calls of this kind many times since Britain narrowly voted to leave the 28-nation bloc in 2016. 

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncke (left) welcomes Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Monday.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: British lawmakers reject Theresa May's Brexit plan for second time