Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans were in disarray on Tuesday as her government sought to plot a way around the speaker of parliament’s ruling that she had to change her twice-defeated divorce deal to put it to a third vote.
After two-and-a-half years of negotiations, Britain’s departure from the European Union remains uncertain – with options including a long postponement, leaving with May’s deal, an economically disruptive exit without a deal, or even another membership referendum.
Speaker John Bercow blindsided May’s office on Monday by ruling the government could not put the same Brexit deal to another vote in parliament unless it was substantially different to the ones defeated on Jan. 15 and March 12.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said the ruling meant a vote this week on May’s deal was more unlikely but said ministers were studying a way out of the impasse and indicated the government still planned a third vote on May’s deal.
“This is a moment of crisis for our country,” Barclay said.
“The ruling from the speaker has raised the bar and I think that makes it more unlikely the vote will be this week.”
“We always said that in terms of bringing a vote back for a third time we would need to see a shift from parliamentarians in terms of the support – I think that still is the case.”
May is due at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday at which she will ask for a delay to the March 29 Brexit departure set in law as the British government tries to come up with a way to leave the European Union after 46 years of membership.
EU leaders could hold off making a final decision at that summit on any Brexit delay depending on what exactly May asks them for, senior diplomats in the bloc said.
“Now it looks like we have to wait till the week after the council to find out what happens,” one diplomat said.
Bercow said his ruling, based on a convention dating back to 1604, should not be considered his last word and the government could bring forward a new proposition that was not the same as those already voted upon.
Because May must now spice any deal with additional legal and procedural innovation, Bercow’s ruling means she is likely to get just one more chance to put the deal to a vote.
Barclay, who last week said Britain should be unafraid of a no-deal exit, indicated the government was looking at different options and that circumstances, such an extension or a shift in support, would indicate a change in context.
“The speaker himself has pointed to possible solutions, he himself has said in earlier rulings we should not be bound by precedent,” Barclay said. “You can have the same motion but where the circumstances have changed.”
“The speaker himself has said that where the will of the House is for a certain course of action, then it is important that the will of the House is respected.”
Even before Bercow’s intervention, May was scrambling to rally support for her deal – which keeps close trading ties with the EU while leaving the bloc’s formal structures – after it was defeated by 230 votes in parliament on Jan. 15, and by 149 votes on March 12.
To get her deal through parliament, May must win over at least 75 lawmakers – dozens of rebels in her own Conservative Party, some Labour lawmakers, and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.
The biggest issue is the so-called Northern Irish border backstop, an insurance policy aimed at avoiding post-Brexit controls on the United Kingdom’s border with EU-member Ireland.
Many Brexiteers and the DUP are concerned the backstop will trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit indefinitely, and have sought guarantees it will not.
The Financial Times said May had been told by senior colleagues she will have to set a timetable for her departure if she is to persuading many rebels to support her deal.
Barclay ruled out May asking Queen Elizabeth to cut short the entire parliamentary session, known as prorogation, saying involving the 92-year-old monarch in Brexit was a bad idea.
“The one thing everyone would agree on is that involving Her Majesty in any of the issues around Brexit is not the way forward, so I don’t see that a realistic option,” he said.