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Opinion Britain’s House of Commons careens into chaos as Theresa May struggles to control Brexit debate

The scene in the British House of Commons on Wednesday, to use one image that easily came to mind, was an angry crew of engineers struggling to stop a runaway train as it hurtled toward a bridge they’d failed to build.

Two weeks before Britain’s membership in the European Union and its economic ties to its neighbours are scheduled to come to a sudden end, and a day after MPs voted for the second time in three months to reject Prime Minister Theresa May’s painstakingly negotiated deal to keep EU-U.K. trade ties intact after the deadline, the House of Commons descended into chaos for a long day.

After a morning and an afternoon of scrambling and fumbling over multiple competing votes and amendments, betrayals and splits, sometimes veering onto uncharted parliamentary terrain, the MPs did manage to find the brake lever – a motion originally proposed by Ms. May’s government but amended on Wednesday afternoon by dissenting MPs so that it pledges Britain, in principle at least, not to allow the country’s EU membership to lapse without a deal. The MPs must either agree on a deal in the next 14 days, or agree to postpone triggering Article 50 of the EU constitution, which would end the U.K.'s membership in the bloc.

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“The House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken,” a hoarse-sounding Ms. May declared on Wednesday evening, resigned to spending the next fortnight forging a future she had not anticipated and cannot really control.

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It was not what Ms. May had wanted. Wednesday’s motion defied her party’s Brexit hardliners, whose preference for a harsh, “no-deal Brexit” has led twice to the defeat of her EU deal. It also defied Ms. May, who has spent the past two years arguing that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” and handed greater control to less Brexit-friendly MPs. A no-deal Brexit is now off the table, as far as British lawmakers are concerned. Yet, there is still no deal – a circle that will be hard to square.

Ms. May, seeking to impose any control at all, ended up ordering her MPs to vote against her government’s motion after it had been amended, and then, after she was overwhelmingly ignored, she ordered the resignation of a cabinet minister who defied her orders.

Ms. May tried one last trick to keep things under her control – and, implicitly, to hold onto her prime ministership. On Wednesday night, she introduced a motion, which will face a vote on Thursday, that would delay Article 50, keeping Britain in the EU until June 30. It would also subject her twice-defeated EU agreement to a third vote by March 20 – assuming that John Bercow, the House speaker, allows it (Parliamentary rules prohibit the same bill being introduced more than once, so it will require some minor amendments).

If the MPs fail to pass her agreement on the third attempt by March 20, the motion pledges (or threatens, in the view of some of her MPs) to postpone Article 50 for much longer, possibly many months. That means Britain would have to hold national elections for the EU Parliament in May – and, although nobody said so out loud, it likely means Britain would face its own election before the Brexit issue is resolved.

Ms. May’s tactic – basically a threat to keep Britain in the EU unless her pro-Brexit MPs finally agree to her EU treaty – may have worked. MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, the hard-line Robespierre figure of the Tory Brexit absolutists, declared late Wednesday night that he would consider going along with the plan: “I’m not the immovable object facing the irresistible force,” he told reporters.

What was most surprising, in a long day of surprises, was the absence of any reasonable alternative to either a catastrophic train-crash Brexit or Ms. May’s EU deal (which would only postpone, and do nothing to resolve, the devastation Britain’s economy would face outside the EU market of 500 million consumers).

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, seemed unwilling or uninterested in proposing a second referendum or a full cancellation of Article 50 – something most of his MPs, and some Tories, have been eager to vote for. Instead, he pledged to work across the aisle to prevent a March 29 catastrophe.

Nor did Ms. May’s leadership face an explicit challenge. This marked the latest in a long series of defeats for Ms. May’s Brexit plans by her own caucus, the latest in a long series of resignations of cabinet ministers, and an unprecedented level of defiance by MPs. That she is still able to hold onto power as her country cruises toward a precipice of her party’s making is a sign of just how little agreement there is about how to stop the train.

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