It previously looked impossible—but the British government’s attempts to see through its Brexit vision descended into shambolic new levels of chaos Monday as the prime minister sought to delay a parliamentary vote on the deal she thrashed out with EU leaders to avoid a massive defeat.
Theresa May spent the previous three weeks—and pots of public money—on a promotional tour attempting to persuade people that the deal she struck with the EU was the best, and only deal possible.
But the people she really had to persuade—the lawmakers in the British Parliament who have to back the deal before it can be implemented—were not convinced. The vote, scheduled for Tuesday, was widely expected to result in a crushing and humiliating defeat for the government.
May’s solution? To abruptly cancel it.
The prime minister told the parliament Monday afternoon she recognized her deal as it stands “would be rejected by a significant margin” and that she would now begin emergency negotiations with other EU leaders, then call a vote on a rejigged deal at an unspecified point in the future.
But the cancellation—an admission that she can’t currently get her flagship piece of policy through—has led to a fresh round of ridicule and calls for the resignation of a prime minister who’s lurched from one crisis to another since she took up the post after the 2016 Brexit referendum.
“The government has decided Theresa May’s Brexit deal is so disastrous that it has taken the desperate step of delaying its own vote at the eleventh hour,” wrote opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“Pathetic cowardice it is from prime minister,” wrote the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. “This can’t go on... A PM and government that have run out of road and now need to get out of the way.”
But it’s the opposition from within her own Conservative party that forced May to postpone the vote. Both the pro-Brexit and pro-EU factions within her party have savagely criticized the terms she agreed to.
The main criticism of the deal is that it would keep the U.K. aligned with EU customs rules until a future trade deal is struck to prevent a physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Some lawmakers fear that would indefinitely tie the U.K. to the EU with no say over its rules. Others fear that it could lead to the eventual disintegration of the United Kingdom or the reunification of Ireland.
It is this issue that May will now urgently attempt to renegotiate.
While some of her colleagues insisted the delay was good news and proved she was listening to their concerns, others wasted no time in once again laying into May and telling her it’s time to go.
“The country needs and deserves better than a prime minister who has lost all credibility at home and abroad,” said Conservative Member of Parliament Ivan Lewis. “While leaving in these circumstances will be personally painful, Theresa May’s sense of duty should now cause her to resign in the national interest.”
Another Conservative, Steve Baker, wrote: “This is essentially a defeat of the prime minister’s Brexit deal. The terms of the withdrawal agreement were so bad that they didn’t dare put it to parliament for a vote. This isn’t the mark of a stable government or a strong plan.”
The value of the pound fell to an 18-month low against the dollar during the day’s chaos, shedding 0.5 percent to stand at $1.26.
What happens next isn’t clear to anyone. May has previously asserted that the only three options open to the U.K. are adopting her deal, leaving the EU with no deal, or canceling Brexit altogether. But the prospect of May being around to dictate those terms for much longer looks bleaker by the hour.
There were fresh calls for a parliament-wide no-confidence vote from opposition parties Monday, with Sturgeon saying her MPs from the Scottish National Party would back it if Corbyn’s Labour MPs did.
The British government had intended to see in 2019 with a clear direction for its exit from the EU at the end of March. But every time it reaches a hurdle it, crashes directly into it.
May can only wait and delay for so long.