Theresa May experiences a historic parliamentary humiliation

We guessed it. But now we know: There was no Plan B.

After months of negotiation and many hours of debate, after long delays and rumors of more delays, after protesters had rung bells and waved European flags outside the Palace of Westminster all afternoon, the British House of Commons finally voted on the “withdrawal deal” that Prime Minister Theresa May had negotiated with the European Union.

As expected, the deal was defeated. Not only that, but it was defeated by 230 votes — the biggest parliamentary defeat for any British government in living memory.

As expected, the opposition Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has called for a vote of no confidence in the government. The debate will be held Wednesday. In all likelihood, the Conservative Party will win.

And after that — then what? The “no” voters included people who want Britain to remain in the E.U. and people who want Britain to crash out of all of its trading and economic arrangements without any deal at all. This vote makes both of those options possible. May has not offered a third.

Instead, she has said people want “clarity.” She said she will “hold meetings with my colleagues . . . to identity what would be required to secure the backing of the House.” The government, she said, “will approach these meetings in a constructive spirit,” a comment that evoked some bitter laughter. Presumably she will go back to Europe, pull some carefully constructed rabbits out of hats — then ask her colleagues to vote again. She claims that her strategy is not to “run down the clock.” More worrying than that thought, though, is the fact there doesn’t seem to be a strategy at all.

Others will now fill the vacuum. The House of Commons itself may come up with some proposals, and there are a few floating around. The People’s Vote campaign is calling for the deadlock to be resolved by a new referendum. One of its leaders told me recently that the campaign is now hoping to be “the last option standing”: After everything else is voted down, there may be no other choice. May continues to push back against a second referendum for a simple reason: Polling is showing increasing numbers of people opposed to Brexit. Indeed, when Britons are offered the choice between remaining in the E.U. and any other concrete option — May’s deal, or no deal — a clear majority favors Remain. But because that outcome would split the Conservative Party, and because the Conservative Party is May’s whole life, she wants to avoid that at any cost. And so here we are.

Inevitably, the coming days will be filled with the minutiae of negotiations and parliamentary procedure. But before that happens, let this sink in: Brexit has been a catastrophic political failure. This messy, unpopular deal, the most unpopular government policy that anybody can remember, was produced by a political class that turned out to be ignorant — about Europe, Europeans, trade arrangements, institutions — and arrogant, disdaining knowledge and expertise. It was the work of leaders who favored identity politics over economics, who preferred an undefined notion of “sovereignty” to the real institutions that gave Britain influence and power, who believed in fantasies and scorned reality.

Time that could have been spent on other things — on debating defense, or poverty, or clean beaches — has been wasted on a policy that won’t make Britain happier, wealthier or stronger. Instead, this long debate has produced confusion and gridlock. And after Tuesday’s vote, more of that is coming.

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