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U.K. Parliament rejects May's Brexit plans despite last-ditch efforts to save deal

Britain's Parliament has dealt a major blow to Prime Minister Theresa May, resoundingly rejecting her Brexit deal just 17 days before the U.K. is due to leave the bloc.

Lawmakers vote 391 to 242 against the deal, the second time they have defeated it

Lawmakers voted against British Prime Minister Theresa May's amended Brexit deal by 391 to 242 as her last-minute talks with EU chiefs on Monday to assuage her critics' concerns ultimately proved fruitless. (Reuters)

British lawmakers crushed Prime Minister Theresa May's European Union divorce deal on Tuesday, thrusting Britain deeper into crisis and forcing Parliament to decide within days whether to back a no-deal Brexit or seek a last-minute delay.

Lawmakers voted against May's amended Brexit deal 391 to 242 as her last-minute talks with EU chiefs on Monday to assuage her critics' concerns proved fruitless.

The vote puts the world's fifth largest economy in uncharted territory with no obvious way forward; exiting the EU without a deal, delaying the March 29 divorce date, a snap election or even another referendum are all now possible.

May might even try a third time to get parliamentary support in the hope that hardline euroskeptic lawmakers in her Conservative Party, the most vocal critics of her withdrawal treaty, might change their minds if it becomes more likely that Britain might stay in the EU after all.

While she lost, the margin of defeat was smaller than the record 230-vote loss her deal suffered in January.

Lawmakers will vote at 3 p.m. ET on Wednesday on whether Britain should quit the world's biggest trading bloc without a deal, a scenario that business leaders warn would bring chaos to markets and supply chains, and other critics say could cause shortages of food and medicines.

Labour Party's shadow secretary for Brexit, Keir Starmer, left, assailed the Conservatives after the attorney general's advice was published. Starmer is shown with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Feb. 21. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

May said the government would not instruct her party's lawmakers how to vote, as would normally be the case.

An opposition Labour Party spokesman said this meant she had "given up any pretence of leading the country." May's political spokesman said she had not discussed resigning.

Risk of no-deal Brexit 'increased significantly'

The prime minister, hoarse after Monday's late-night talks, told lawmakers: "Let me be clear. Voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems we face."

She said Parliament is at an impasse: "Does it wish to revoke Article 50 [announcing the intention to leave the EU]? Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal, but not this deal?"

Graham Brady, an influential Conservative lawmaker, said the two most likely scenarios were leaving the EU without a deal "or some kind of endless delay."

The European Union said the risk of a damaging no-deal Brexit has "increased significantly" but there would be no more 
negotiations with London on the divorce terms.

Sterling, which had earlier in the day fallen by two per cent to $1.74 Cdn, was trading at around $1.75 Cdn shortly after the vote.

The pound is likely to weaken further amid prolonged uncertainty, said Andrew Wilson of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. "That said, ruling out of a 'no-deal' Brexit could provide some support for the currency."

'There will be no third chance'

Opposition to May's deal among members of the Conservative Party derives from a belief that it does not offer the clean break from the European Union that many voted for.

Supporters of Brexit argue that, while a no-deal" divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it 
would allow the United Kingdom to thrive and forge beneficial trade deals across the world.

However, Parliament is expected firmly to reject a no-deal Brexit as well, so lawmakers would then vote again on Thursday — on whether government should request a delay to the leaving date to allow further talks.

Both May and the EU have already ruled out any other changes to the deal, struck after two-and-a-half years of tortuous negotiations.

"There will be no third chance," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday. "There will be no further interpretations of the interpretations, no further assurances of the reassurances if the 'meaningful vote' tomorrow fails."

Parliament to decide length of delay requested

The government had been expected to offer Parliament the chance to press for a short extension, but announced on Tuesday night that it would be for Parliament to decide on the length of the delay that the government would request.
A Brexit supporter takes part in a protest in London on Tuesday. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

This raised the possibility that it might ask to push the exit date past late May, when Britain would have to participate in European Parliament elections — a prospect that both sides have been keen to avoid.

A spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk, representing EU governments, said Britain would have to provide a "credible justification" for any request to delay Brexit.

Britons voted by 52-48 per cent in 2016 to leave the EU but the decision has not only divided the main parties but also exposed deep rifts in British society, bringing to the fore concerns about immigration and globalization.

Many fear that Brexit will divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China, leaving Britain economically weaker and with its security capabilities depleted.

Supporters say it allows Britain to control immigration and take advantage of global opportunities, striking new trade deals with the U.S. and others while keeping close links to the EU, which, even without Britain, would be a single market of 440 million people.

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