British Prime Minister Theresa May faced a no-confidence vote Wednesday, a day after Parliament rejected her Brexit deal by a historic margin, unleashing a power struggle over control of Britain’s planned exit from the European Union.
May was battling to save her job after staking her political reputation on winning support for the divorce agreement she has negotiated with the EU over the last two years. Although the Brexit defeat was widely expected, the scale of the rout — 432 votes to 202 — was devastating for May’s leadership and her Brexit deal.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn responded with a no-confidence motion, saying Parliament should give its verdict “on the sheer incompetence of this government.”
Opening a debate leading up to the vote, which is scheduled for 7 p.m., Corbyn said the government should “do the right thing and resign.”
“If a government cannot get its legislation through Parliament, it must go to the country for a new mandate,” Corbyn said.
May, who leads a fractious government, a divided Parliament and a gridlocked Brexit process, said she would stay put. May said an election “would deepen division when we need unity, it would bring chaos when we need certainty, and it would bring delay when we need to move forward.”
The government is likely to survive Wednesday’s vote with support from May’s Conservative Party and its Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party.
If the government loses, it will have 14 days to overturn the result or face an early national election within weeks.
Political analyst Anand Menon, from the research group, U.K. in a Changing Europe, said May had a remarkable ability to soldier on.
“The thing about Theresa May is that nothing seems to faze her,” he said. “She just keeps on going.”
After the biggest parliamentary defeat in history for a British government, May promised to consult with senior lawmakers on future moves. Parliament has given the government until Monday to come up with a new Brexit plan.
“The House has spoken and the government will listen,” May said after Tuesday’s vote, which came just 10 weeks before Britain is due to leave the bloc on March 29.
But she also said any new Brexit plan must “deliver on the referendum result,” which May has long interpreted to mean ending the free movement of workers to Britain from the EU and leaving the EU’s single market and customs union.
Many lawmakers think a softer departure that retained single market or customs union membership is the only plan capable of winning a majority in Parliament. The alternative is an abrupt “no-deal” Brexit on March 29, which businesses and economists fear would cause turmoil.
Corbyn said despite May’s claim that she would reach out to lawmakers from all parties, he had not received a call from the prime minister.
Meanwhile, lawmakers from all parties are trying to wrest control of the Brexit process so that Parliament can direct planning for Britain’s departure.
But with no clear majority in Parliament for any single alternative on Brexit, there’s a growing chance that Britain may seek to postpone its departure date while politicians work on a new plan — or even hand the decision back to voters in a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Pro-EU lawmaker Dominic Grieve introduced a bill Wednesday that aims to lay the groundwork for a second referendum on Brexit, which he called “the only way out of the current crisis.”
European leaders are now preparing for the worst — even though German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was still time for further talks. She told reporters in Berlin that “we are now waiting to see what the British prime minister proposes.”
But her measured remarks contrasted with the blunt message from French President Emmanuel Macron, who told Britons to “figure it out yourselves.” He said Britain needed to get realistic about what was possible.
“Good luck to the representatives of the nation who have to implement something that doesn’t exist,” Macron said.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc is stepping up preparations for a chaotic “no-deal” departure by Britain after Parliament’s actions left the bloc “fearing more than ever that there is a risk” of a cliff-edge departure.
Economists warn that an abrupt break with the EU could batter the British economy and bring chaotic scenes at borders, ports and airports. Business groups have expressed alarm at the prospect of a no-deal exit.
But investors appeared to shrug off the rejection of May’s deal. The pound was up 0.1 percent at $1.2869 in early morning trading Wednesday in London, and the FTSE 100 index of leading British shares was down 0.1 percent at 6,888.
James Smith, an economist at ING, says the “calm market response” suggests investors think the government will end up having to seek an extension to the Brexit timetable.
May, who postponed a Brexit vote in December to avoid certain defeat, had implored lawmakers to back her deal and deliver on voters’ decision in 2016 to leave the EU.
But the deal was doomed by deep opposition from both sides of the divide over the U.K.’s place in Europe. Pro-Brexit lawmakers say the deal will leave Britain bound indefinitely to EU rules, while pro-EU politicians favor an even closer economic relationship with the bloc.
The most contentious section of the deal was an insurance policy known as the “backstop” designed to prevent the reintroduction of border controls between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. Assurances from EU leaders that the backstop is intended as a temporary measure of last resort failed to win over many British lawmakers.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters Wednesday it was now up to the British government to come up with alternatives to avoid leaving the EU without an agreement.
Varadkar said if May’s government was willing to shift some of its “red lines” in negotiations — such as leaving the customs union and EU single market — then the position of EU negotiators would also change.
“The onus is on Westminster” to come up with solutions, Varadkar said.
© The Associated Press. All rights reserved.