British Prime Minister, Theresa May, Tuesday evening suffered a humiliating and historic defeat as her Brexit deal is voted down by 432 to 202.
Labour Leader, Jeremy Corby, immediately called for a vote of no confidence on her government, while the European Union (EU) sought to know the United Kingdom’s next line of action.
Meanwhile, the Washinton Post, May stood almost alone on Tuesday, as many in her own party prepared to abandon their leader and reject her unloved Brexit deal — leaving Britain’s future relationship with the European Union unclear.
With Tory vote-counters predicting a humiliating defeat in a momentous vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, historians were searching the past for comparisons.
Some scholars had to go as far back as the 19th century to find a comparable party split and parliamentary defeat — to Prime Minister William Gladstone’s support for Irish home rule in 1886, which split the Liberal Party.
“The events in Parliament today are really quite remarkable,” said Cambridge University political historian Luke Blaxill. “This doesn’t happen.” Meaning, usually British parties fight with one another in Parliament — they don’t tear their own parties in half.
Outside Parliament on Tuesday, the scene was raucous as thousands of protesters on both sides, many in costumes or waving flags, gathered — illustrating how unsettled and divisive Brexit remains more than two years after voters opted in a 2016 June referendum to leave the European Union. It was the largest balloting in British history.
Brexiteers banged drums and rang a “liberty” bell, while pro-E.U. demonstrators handed out “bollocks to Brexit” stickers in Parliament Square beside two huge video screens set up for the live broadcast of the final speeches and then the vote.
Jeff Wyatt, 54, a pro-Brexit voter, was holding aloft a placard that accused May of treason. Another man in the crowd suggested that the prime minister should face the executioner’s ax.
“For the first time in the history of my country, we’ve got Parliament against the people,” Wyatt said, gesturing at the Palace of Westminster.
Over the past weeks, with growing fervor, May has warned Conservative Party members of Parliament that they gambled all if they voted down her half-in, half-out compromise plan.
The British leader argued that rejection of her plan could bring about a fraught “no-deal” Brexit, loaded with financial risk.
Or worse, she warned, opponents of Brexit could succeed in their drive to call for a second referendum on whether to remain in or leave the continental trading bloc.
The prime minister suggested that Brexit supporters might even lose that second vote and be saddled with a bitterly divided nation and the status quo.
“If we don’t vote for this agreement, then we risk playing into the hands of those who do not want Brexit to go ahead,” Environment Secretary Michael Gove told BBC Radio on Tuesday.
But frustration and anger over how May has handled the long, slow negotiations with Brussels has been mounting.
Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, spoke for many when she told the BBC, “Brexit is a complete cluster shambles.”
British political reporters estimated that as many as 100 Conservative members of Parliament might vote against May’s deal, joining the opposition Labour Party and others, including Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which helps prop up May’s minority government but hates her Brexit deal.
Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote that it appeared May was hurtling toward “the most shattering rejection of any prime minister in modern times.”
He wondered, “Will it be 200 or only 100? Might Theresa May surprise us all and lose by a mere 50 or 60 votes? It is a measure of the looking glass world of British politics that a crushing reverse on the most important piece of legislation the prime minister will ever introduce is discussed as a bump in the road rather than as the administration-ending loss it should be.”
May almost pleaded with her fellow Tories on Monday to take “a second look” at her plan. “It is not perfect,” she said, “But when the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this House and ask, ‘Did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the E.U., did we safeguard our economy, security or union, or did we let the British people down?’ ”
What happens next?
If May’s deal is rejected by Parliament, she has until Monday to return to the chamber with her “Plan B.” Her office has been tight-lipped about what that might be.
Her supporters say she will not resign, even in the face of a crushing defeat. They suggest instead that May might return to Brussels, to seek new concessions over the controversial provisions about the Irish border — or even attempt to reopen talks. It is also possible that she might seek negotiations among all parties in Parliament to see what kind of deal, if any, they could agree upon.
At the same time, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure to immediately call for a “no confidence” vote against May. It is likely that he would lose that vote — as Tories will not want to see May chucked and a general election called..
Additional reports by Washington Post