LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May faced a fresh defeat by lawmakers Thursday following a vote on her Brexit strategy, underscoring the deep divisions in Parliament with just 44 days to go until Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union.
The House of Commons voted 303 to 258 to reject a motion that would have endorsed May’s Brexit strategy. Many of the hard-line Brexiteers in May’s own Conservative Party didn’t back the government.
“Tonight’s vote shows there is no majority for the prime minister’s course of action,” Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party. “She cannot keep on just running down the clock and hoping that something will turn up that will save the day.”
Anna Soubry, a pro-European Conservative, said May had been “dealt yet another body blow.”
Parliament on Thursday voted on what seemed to be a benign motion that stated it supports May’s strategy, including efforts to renegotiate the Irish backstop, which relates to the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. But the hard-line Brexiteers were also concerned that the motion, in effect, would mean endorsing the view that Parliament was against leaving without a deal, which they think should be an option.
The defeat is symbolic, but it raises the question about what kind of deal — if any — could command the support of the House of Commons as Britain hurtles toward its departure from the E.U.
May’s office said in a statement that it would continue its strategy to seek changes to the backstop to “to ensure we leave on time on 29th March.”
Earlier in the day, Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, warned potential rebels that European negotiators would be watching Thursday’s debate closely.
“Our European partners will be watching our debate and listening today to see if they get the impression that, if they were to make those concessions, Parliament would definitely deliver,” he said.
He added that Parliament was not an “internal debating society.”
May is in the process of seeking changes to the E.U. withdrawal deal that she previously negotiated. That agreement experienced a crushing defeat last month — the worst ever for a British government.
It was thought that there might be a new “meaningful vote” on a revised Brexit plan on Thursday. But no. That vote — the next big one — has been pushed back, perhaps until later this month, or perhaps March.
Critics say this is just the latest in May’s Olympian-like can-kicking.
May has said if she hasn’t brought back a revised Brexit deal by Feb. 26, then the following day British lawmakers would have a chance to vote on the way forward. She also has refused to rule out holding the meaningful vote in the last two weeks of March.
Some lawmakers have said Brexit Day will have to be delayed beyond March 29. An overheard conversation has also given fodder to the idea that Britain could seek to delay.
Olly Robbins, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, was overheard in a Brussels bar this week suggesting that Downing Street’s strategy was to wait until the end of March and then offer lawmakers the choice between a revised deal or a significant extension.
May has long said Britain will leave the bloc on March 29, with or without a deal. Many lawmakers think that leaving the bloc without a deal could be disastrous, potentially leading to shortages of food and medicine.
The clock is ticking, businesses are becoming increasingly nervous, and it’s unclear whether there is a landing zone on which all sides can agree.
But if a deal is struck at the 11th hour, it wouldn’t surprise some.
“There is a tradition in the E.U. of things being settled at the last minute,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform. He noted that the Maastricht summit in 1991, for instance, came together at the last minute, and that the seven-year E.U. budget seems to be settled right before the deadline.
But he stressed that the stakes were much higher with Brexit.
“The uncertainty is much greater than usual and the consequences of getting things wrong are much greater than usual,” he said. “Normally, if you’re trying to ratify a new treaty and you don’t ratify a new treaty, then life goes on as before. This is not the case with Brexit. If we don’t get a deal ratified, the world changes very dramatically for the E.U. and in particular for the U.K.,” he said.
Analysts also say there is a lot of heavy lifting yet to do.
While previous deals in the European Union may have had the appearance of coming together at the last minute, there is actually a lot work that goes on behind the scenes, said Catherine Barnard, a professor of E.U. law at Cambridge University.
“There is a lot of theater about it being through-the-night and last minute,” she said, but actually “the Sherpas have done a huge amount of work game-planning and negotiating and discussing before.”
Referring to the current Brexit negotiations, she said: “What’s really worrying people at the moment is the background legwork hasn’t been done.”