British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday postponed Parliament's vote on her Brexit divorce deal with the European Union, acknowledging that lawmakers would have rejected it by a "significant margin."
The move averted a humiliating defeat for the government in a vote that had been scheduled for Tuesday. But it throws Britain's Brexit plans into disarray, with the country's departure from the EU just over three months away on March 29.
In an emergency statement to the House of Commons, May accepted that lawmakers had "widespread and deep concern" about some aspects of the divorce deal agreed upon last month between May and EU leaders.
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"As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be rejected by a significant margin," she said. "We will therefore defer the vote."
May said she would seek "assurances" from the EU and bring the Brexit deal back to Parliament, but did not set a new date for the vote.
Many lawmakers were scathing in their comments about both May's actions and the Brexit deal, and derisive laughter erupted when May claimed there was "broad support" for many aspects of the plan.
"The government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray," said opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Voters across the United Kingdom backed leaving the EU by a vote of 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent in a referendum that was held on June 23, 2016. Voter turnout was 72.2 percent, the highest for any U.K. election since 1992.
On March 29, 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May formally notified the EU of the U.K.'s intention to leave, starting the two-year negotiating period spelled out in the bloc's rules. This means that U.K. is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019.
May and EU leaders have negotiated a withdrawal agreement that spells out the terms of the U.K.'s departure. The deal also outlines the future relationship between the two sides, although the details are subject to further negotiations.
WHAT IS HAPPENING THIS WEEK?
The House of Commons, the elected branch of Parliament, was scheduled to vote on the deal Tuesday, but the prime minister delayed the vote in the face of widespread opposition.
May insists the deal "delivers for the British people," but after three days of debate, it was clear that she didn't have the votes needed for passage.
Much of the anger is focused on provisions designed to prevent the re-implementation of physical border controls between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. Under the so-called backstop, the U.K. would remain part of the EU customs union if the two sides couldn't agree on another way to avoid a "hard border."
Lawmakers from all sides of the political spectrum criticized the backstop because the U.K. couldn't leave the arrangement without the EU's consent, giving European negotiators leverage to demand future concessions. The backstop would also treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K., drawing the ire of politicians who zealously guard Northern Ireland's continued union with Britain.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
A delay will force the weakened government to try to renegotiate its departure or face two equally unpalatable choices: a "no-deal" Brexit that could bring havoc to the economy or call a second referendum, which could undermine faith in the country's democratic institutions and lead to mass protests. Whichever option she chooses, analysts say May's government is weakened — perhaps fatally.
WHAT ARE MAY'S OPTIONS?
The prime minister may ask EU leaders to accept changes to the deal when they meet Dec. 13-14 in hopes of winning support in Parliament. EU leaders insist the 585-page withdrawal agreement can't be renegotiated, but the declaration on future relations is shorter and subject to future negotiations so amendments may be possible.
But there is no agreement about what a better deal would look like.
Many "Brexiteers" seek a clean break with the bloc and want to change the Irish backstop. Pro-EU lawmakers want a softer divorce — the so-called Norway option — that would keep Britain inside the EU's single market for goods and services. The EU might be open to this idea, but it would mean accepting the continued free movement of EU citizens into the U.K., a red line for many Brexit supporters.
IS MAY'S JOB IN JEOPARDY?
Though she insists she has no plans to resign, May's hold on power has been weakened by her inability to bridge differences within her Cabinet and finalize a deal on the biggest issue facing the U.K. since World War II.
Pro-Brexit rebels in her Conservative Party can trigger a vote of no-confidence in May's leadership if they win the backing of 48 members of Parliament. If May lost the vote, the party would hold an election to choose a new party leader— a process that would take several weeks.
May would remain prime minister in the meantime, but without much authority as the clock ticks down to March 29, the day Britain officially is due to leave the EU.
IS THERE AN ELECTION ON THE CARDS?
The opposition Labour Party has threatened to call for a vote of no-confidence in the government, which could trigger a general election. But winning such a vote would require the support of some Conservatives, who may be unwilling to trigger an election that could well see them ousted from power.
If May's government lost a confidence vote, it would have two weeks to overturn the result with a new vote by lawmakers. If that failed, there would be an election, a process that takes five to six weeks.
Whatever new government emerges would have little time to solve the Brexit conundrum before March 29.
COULD THE U.K. CHANGE ITS MIND?
Yes. The European Court of Justice ruled Monday that the U.K. can change its mind and remain in the EU without the agreement of the other 27 member nations.
This provides encouragement to supporters of a so-called People's Vote, who are seeking a second referendum now that the costs and benefits of Brexit are better understood.