London • British lawmakers voted Thursday to seek to delay Brexit — maybe for weeks, maybe for months — after Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for leaving the European Union have been repeatedly rejected by a raucous Parliament trying to wrestle control of the exit from the government.
Lawmakers also voted against holding a second Brexit referendum, a complete do-over that could see the results of the historic June 2016 plebiscite overturned.
While many members of Parliament may ultimately back a second referendum — a highly contentious prospect, marketed as a “People’s Vote” — even supporters of the move withheld support on Thursday, hoping instead to push the idea in tumultuous days to come.
In the main vote on Thursday, May is offering lawmakers a stark choice. Either support her now twice rejected Brexit deal in a third “meaningful vote” next week — dubbed MV3 — or face the prospect of a very long Brexit delay.
Christopher Chope, a hard-line Brexiteer and fellow member of May's Conservative Party, confessed he felt May's cold steel. "Instead of accepting verdict of House, she is stubbornly continuing to assert that her deal is a good deal. And now she is holding a pistol to our heads by threatening that we will lose Brexit altogether," he told the House of Commons during the debate.
The clock ticks louder each day, with the default Brexit deadline set for March 29. May said that if the lawmakers back a Brexit deal by Wednesday — the day before a European summit — then she will ask EU leaders for a “one-off extension” ending on June 30. Those three months would be necessary to pass legislation in Britain and on the continent and to provide for an “orderly Brexit.”
If the lawmakers reject May on her third attempt to win approval for her half-in, half-out compromise plan for Brexit, then the prime minister would ask EU leaders for a longer delay — the government’s motion doesn’t say how long.
Staying in beyond June would require Britain, as one of the 28 EU member states, to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019. This would essentially keep Britain in the economic and political union a good long while.
How long? Maybe forever, opponents of Brexit hope and hard-line Brexiteers fear.
President Trump weighed into the debate on Wednesday, offering May a hand with a morning tweet: "My Administration looks forward to negotiating a large scale Trade Deal with the United Kingdom. The potential is unlimited!"
But in a later meeting with the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House, Trump was critical of May's leadership.
"I'm surprised at how badly it's all gone from the standpoint of a negotiation," Trump said. "I gave the prime minister my ideas on how to negotiate it, and I think you would have been successful. She didn't listen to that and that's fine - she's got to do what she's got to do. I think it could have been negotiated in a different manner, frankly. I hate to see everything being ripped apart now."
European leaders will have to decide what to do with Britain when they gather for a two-day conclave in Brussels next Thursday. They are divided over how much rope to give.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, tweeted on Thursday that he would urge EU leaders to support a "long extension" if Britain needed to "rethink its Brexit strategy."
French President Emmanuel Macron does not support granting a short extension, if it is merely for Britain to try to reopen negotiations over terms with the European Union, an official from Macron's office told Reuters.
"Once they sort themselves out, I'm pretty sure the 27 will still be united on the next steps forward," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told Sky News. "But many member states are saying, yes, you're talking about an extension, but to do what? That question appeared unlikely to be settled by Thursday's votes."
Conservative party lawmaker Ken Clarke, who opposes Brexit, told Sky News that the government should ask Brussels for the longest possible extension.
"I think we should suggest to the Europeans a good, long delay," Clarke said. "Go back to square one and work out . . . over a proper time, the final relationship."
Passions are high - as hard-line Brexiteers fear May's strategy will either force them to accept a deal they don't like or they will lose their beloved Brexit.
A headline in the Telegraph newspaper read: "Britain's Remainer elites have declared war on democracy itself."
Nigel Farage, the frontman for Brexit and former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, warned, "Brexit's betrayal is one of the most shameful chapters in British history."
The vote against the second referendum was decisive: 85 to 335. The opposition Labour party asked its members to abstain and urged members pushing for a second referendum to be patient. The Labour leader on Brexit, Keir Starmer, told angry backbenchers, "It is obvious that we are supportive of the principle. It's a question of timing."
The People's Vote Campaign issued a statement Thursday saying "we do not think today is the right time to test the will of the House on the case for a new public vote."
Lawmakers also voted against an amendment that would see Parliament hold "indicative votes," where lawmakers would vote on a range of Brexit options to help determine Parliament's preferred outcome. The amendment reflected an effort by Parliament to take control of Brexit away from May. The vote was close: 312 to 314.
Members of May’s party have been brazen in saying that a compromise deal could be crafted — but they beg the prime minister to drop her plan.
"There is a majority in this house for a Brexit deal. It's just not the prime minister's deal," Conservative lawmaker George Freeman told the BBC. "We have got to find a way to find that cross-party deal."
Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and who is currently in Washington, told the BBC they were in talks with May's government. Many think that if the DUP were to fall in behind the government, then other hard-line Brexiteers would follow.
"When you come to the end of a negotiation, that's when you really start to see the whites of people's eyes," said Foster, "and you get down to the point where you make a deal."
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The Washington Post Michael Birnbaum and Quentin Aries in Brussels contributed to this report.