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Theresa May survives no-confidence vote after Parliament rejects Brexit deal

Reuters TV | British Prime Minister Theresa May gestures as she speaks during a no-confidence debate in Parliament on January 16, 2019.

British Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote on Wednesday, a day after Parliament rejected her Brexit deal by a historic margin and unleashed a power struggle over Britain's exit from the European Union.

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Parliamentarians voted by 325 in favour of May's government to 306 against.

May invited opposition leaders to meet with her for talks on Brexit later Wednesday.

"I would like to invite the leaders of parliamentary parties to meet with me individually and I would like to start these meetings tonight," May told Parliament, though as of Wednesday night the opposition Labour Party had yet to agree to join those talks.

The prime minister was forced into a fight for her political survival after staking her reputation on winning support for the Brexit “divorce” agreement she had negotiated with the EU over the last two years. Although the deal’s defeat on Tuesday was widely expected, the scale of the rout – 432 to 202 – was the largest in modern British history and devastating for May's leadership.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn issued a no-confidence motion immediately after the rejection, saying it would give Parliament a chance to give its verdict "on the sheer incompetence of this government".

Most analysts had predicted May would survive because lawmakers from her Conservative Party were unlikely to vote against her, and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which supports the May government, had said it would continue to back the prime minister.

Watch: The moment UK's May survived a confidence vote

May's Brexit agreement was designed to keep trade rules between the world's fifth-biggest economy and its largest export market almost unchanged for a transition period running through the end of 2020. A sudden shift to different rules after the March 29 Brexit would affect almost every economic sector and possibly see the costs of everyday products in Britain rise, as well as create disruption at logistical hubs such as ports.

May had refused to budge on the deal, which was agreed last November with EU leaders, despite criticism from all quarters. Pro-EU lawmakers saw it as the worst of all worlds while Brexit supporters said it would make Britain a vassal state.

After she was confronted with the biggest defeat for any British government in well over a century, May promised to consult with senior lawmakers on future moves, but gave little indication of what she plans to do next. Parliament has given the government until Monday to come up with a new plan for how Britain should leave the EU.

"The House has spoken and the government will listen," May said after Tuesday's vote, which left her Brexit plan on life support just 10 weeks before Britain is due to leave the bloc on March 29.

May now faces a stark choice: Steer the country towards an abrupt break from the EU without a deal to govern their future relationship or try to nudge it towards a softer departure. Meanwhile, British lawmakers from all parties are trying to wrest control of the Brexit process from a Conservative government seen as a lame duck so that lawmakers can take over planning for Britain's departure from the EU.

Hours after survivng the no-confidence vote, May reiterated her call for leaders of the UK's main political parties to come together to discuss a new Brexit deal that could win parliament's backing.

"Now MPs have made clear what they don’t want, we must all work constructively together to set out what parliament does want," May said outside Downing Street on Wednesday night.

"That’s why I am inviting MPs from all parties to come together to find a way forward. This is now the time to put self-interest aside."

May said she had already talked to representatives from the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Welsh party Plaid Cymru.

But, she said: "I am disappointed that the leader of the Labour Party has not so far chosen to take part – but our door remains open."

Labour leader Corbyn said no positive talks were possible unless a no-deal Brexit was taken off the table. His party wants a permanent customs union with the EU, a close relationship with its single market and greater protections for workers and consumers.

>> ‘Plan B, what plan B?’ Five options to break Brexit deadlock

However, with no clear majority in Parliament for any single alternative on Brexit, there's a growing chance that Britain may seek to postpone its EU departure date while politicians work on a new plan – or even pass the decision back to voters by holding a new referendum on Britain's EU membership.

European leaders are now preparing for the worst.

In a statement released shortly after the deal was rejected, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Parliament's move increases the chances of a chaotic, no-deal Brexit.

A British exit without a deal is seen as a doomsday scenario that would threaten to trigger a recession in Britain and significantly slow the European Union's economic growth.

"I urge the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible. Time is almost up," Juncker said.

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc is stepping up preparations for a "no-deal" departure by Britain after Parliament's actions left the bloc "fearing more than ever that there is a risk" of a chaotic departure.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was still time for further Brexit talks, telling reporters in Berlin that "we are now waiting to see what the British prime minister proposes".

>> The Brexit rollercoaster: A timeline of Britain’s EU divorce

But her measured remarks contrasted with the blunt message from French President Emmanuel Macron, who told Britons to "figure it out yourselves". He said Britain needs to get realistic about what was possible.

"Good luck to the representatives of the nation who have to implement something that doesn't exist," Macron said.

France's parliament on Wednesday adopted a law on emergency measures for Britain's exit from the EU. The law provides for extra customs officers after Brexit day and a temporary rule allowing Britons employed in France to keep their jobs after March 29 even though they will no longer be EU citizens.

Business groups have also expressed wide alarm at the prospect of a no-deal exit.

"Every business will feel 'no-deal' is hurtling closer," said Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry. "A new plan is needed immediately."

The deal was doomed by deep opposition from both sides of the divide over the UK's place in Europe. Pro-Brexit lawmakers say the deal will leave Britain bound indefinitely to EU rules, while pro-EU politicians favour an even closer economic relationship with the bloc.

The most contentious section of the deal was an insurance policy known as the "backstop" designed to prevent the reintroduction of border controls between the UK's Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. Assurances from EU leaders that the backstop is intended as a temporary measure of last resort failed to win over many British lawmakers.

Irish leader Leo Varadkar told reporters Wednesday it was now up to the British government to come up with alternatives to avoid departing from the EU without an agreement.

Varadkar said if May's government is willing to shift some of its stated "red lines" in negotiations – such as exiting a customs union and leaving the single EU market – then the position of EU negotiators would also change.

"The onus is on Westminster" to come up with solutions, Varadkar said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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