LONDON – The British Parliament moved to pry control of the Brexit process away from Prime Minister Theresa May, forcing votes on alternatives to her unpopular plan to extract the United Kingdom from the European Union.
Nearly three years after the UK voted to leave the EU, Parliament is gridlocked, with lawmakers twice rejecting a Brexit deal May negotiated.
To break the impasse, lawmakers voted on Monday to hold “indicative” votes on various options to see if there is a parliamentary majority for a different Brexit deal.
The defeat of the government by a 329-302 vote underlines May’s decreasing ability to guide Brexit outcomes. In a sign of growing dissatisfaction with May, three of her ministers voted to hand power to Parliament and resigned.
Some pro-EU lawmakers hope the indicative votes, scheduled to take place on Wednesday, will force the government to renegotiate a deal that keeps the UK more closely bound to its biggest trading partner or even halt Brexit altogether.
But the government criticized the vote. A statement from the Department for Exiting the European Union said the vote “upends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous unpredictable precedent for the future.”
May had said she was skeptical that the indicative-vote process would work, and that the government wouldn’t commit to backing any consensus that emerges. She said she couldn’t agree in advance to a “blank check.”
“When we have tried this kind of thing in the past, it has produced contradictory outcomes or no outcome at all,” she said on Monday, adding that the government aims to put her deal to a third vote in Parliament this week.
Since at least the early 20th century, the government has kept the power to take precedent in deciding what is voted on in the House of Commons. Following Monday’s vote, lawmakers will on specific days have the ability to propose legislation ahead of the government. That could, in theory, give lawmakers the power to pass laws binding the government into negotiating a different type of Brexit.
The plan for indicative votes doesn’t guarantee the Brexit logjam will suddenly clear. There might not be a majority for any other Brexit scenario, though the plan’s proponents say finding an agreed outcome may take several attempts.
It isn’t clear Parliament will be able to bend May to its will. A group of lawmakers from different political parties will struggle to push a law through Parliament to force May’s hand if she ignores the outcome of the indicative votes.
It could also work in May’s favor, pushing euroskeptics to back her deal, fearing Parliament could cancel or water down Brexit.
However, if the government disregards Parliament’s will, it paves the way for a standoff that might be resolved only with a general election. May ruled out on Monday holding a general election even if votes show support for a different plan.
The skirmish means the standoff over Brexit isn’t likely to be resolved soon, extending the period of economic and political uncertainty that has been hanging over the UK since voters chose to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum.
Lawmakers are expected to vote this week on up to seven options, ranging from leaving without a deal to revoking Brexit, which the UK can do unilaterally. Votes will also explore lawmakers’ appetite for closer ties with the EU and its customs and regulatory rules, whether to opt for a more decisive break and whether to hold another referendum to see if there is public support for the deal.
May said she is focused on trying to muster support for the withdrawal agreement. She said a third vote on the deal is the only safe and swift route out of the EU for the UK. But she acknowledged if she held the vote on Tuesday as initially planned, she would again be defeated.
“I continue to believe that the right path forward is for the United Kingdom to leave the EU as soon as possible with a deal,” May said.
Brexit has been delayed past the original March 29 deadline date. EU leaders last week agreed that if May’s deal is passed, the UK will leave the bloc on May 22. However, if the deal isn’t agreed, the default outcome is for Britain to fall out of the bloc without any legal framework on April 12.
To avoid that, the government would have to ask the EU for a lengthier delay, possibly of as long as a year, laying out a plan for what it aims to achieve during the postponement. It would then have to hold elections for the European Parliament, probably on May 23. In this scenario, several Conservative lawmakers have said May should quit.