Britain's Parliament has spoken — and it has said no, again.
Lawmakers seeking a way out of the country's Brexit morass yesterday rejected four alternatives to the Government's unpopular European Union divorce deal that would have softened or even halted Britain's departure.
With just less than two weeks until the United Kingdom must come up with a new plan or crash out of the bloc in chaos, the House of Commons threw out four options designed to replace Prime Minister Theresa May's thrice-rejected Brexit deal — though in some cases by a whisker.
The result leaves May's Conservative Government facing difficult and risky choices. It can gamble on a fourth attempt to push May's unloved deal through Parliament, let Britain tumble out of the bloc without a deal, or roll the dice by seeking a snap election to shake up Parliament.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the Government would continue to seek support for a "credible" plan for leaving the EU. "This House has continuously rejected leaving without a deal just as it has rejected not leaving at all," he told MPs in the House of Commons after the votes. "Therefore the only option is to find a way through which allows the UK to leave with a deal."
May has summoned her Cabinet for a marathon meeting today to thrash out the options. She could this week try to bring her Brexit agreement back for a fourth time.
Yesterday's votes revealed a preference among MPs for a softer form of Brexit — but not a majority to make it happen.
The narrowest defeat — 276 votes to 273 — was for a plan to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU, guaranteeing smooth and tariff-free trade in goods. A motion that went further, calling for Britain to stay in the EU's borderless single market for both goods and services, was defeated 282-261.
A third proposal calling for any Brexit deal Britain strikes with the EU to be put to a public referendum was defeated 292-280.
The fourth, which would let Britain cancel Brexit if it came within two days of crashing out of the bloc without a deal, fell by a wider margin, 292-191.
May had already ruled out all the ideas under consideration. But the deal she negotiated with the EU has been rejected by Parliament three times, leaving Britain facing a no-deal Brexit that could cause turmoil for people and businesses on both sides of the Channel.
Conservative lawmaker Nick Boles, architect of the single-market option, acknowledged he had failed in his attempt to break the deadlock.
"I have failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise," Boles added, announcing that he was quitting the Conservatives to sit as an independent in Parliament.
The April 12 deadline, imposed by the EU, gives Britain's politicians less than two weeks to bridge the hostile divide that separates those in who want to sever links with the EU and those who want to keep the ties that have bound Britain to the bloc for almost 50 years.
Lawmakers have carved out more time tomorrow for further votes on Brexit options.
The impasse is raising expectations that lawmakers or the Government could try to trigger a snap election in the hope a new configuration in Parliament would break the Brexit logjam. But the Conservatives are worried that could hand power to the opposition Labour Party.
The lack of consensus reflects a Parliament and a Government deeply divided over how — and whether — to leave the EU.
Justice Secretary David Gauke said leaving the bloc without a deal was "not the responsible thing for a government to do". But Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss said it would be better than a soft Brexit.
"I don't have any fear of no-deal," she said.
The Brexit impasse has alarmed businesses, who say the uncertainty has deterred investment and undermined economic growth.
EU leaders have called a special summit on April 10 to consider any request from Britain for a delay to Brexit — or to make last-minute preparations for Britain's departure without a deal two days later.
So little time, so few options ...
Most politicians, economists and business groups think leaving the world's largest trading bloc without an agreement would be disastrous. It would impose tariffs on trade between Britain and the European Union, bring customs checks that could cause gridlock at ports, and could spark shortages of essential goods.
Brexiteer MPs in Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party dismiss this as "Project Fear" and argue for what they call a "clean Brexit". They have urged her not to compromise and to ramp up preparations to leave the bloc without an agreement on April 12. Parliament has voted repeatedly to rule out a no-deal Brexit, but that remains the default position unless a deal is approved, Brexit is cancelled or the EU grants Britain another extension.
May says the only way to guarantee Britain does not leave the EU without a deal is for Parliament to back her deal — which lawmakers have already rejected three times.
May's undead deal
After almost two years of negotiations, Britain and the EU struck a divorce deal in November, laying out the terms of the departure from the bloc and giving a rough outline of future relations.
But it has been roundly rejected by lawmakers on both sides of the Brexit divide. Pro-Brexit lawmakers think it keeps Britain too closely tied to EU rules. Pro-EU legislators argue it is worse than the UK's current status as an EU member.
Parliament has thrown it out three times, although the latest defeat, by 58 votes, was the narrowest yet. It was rejected even after May won over some pro-Brexit lawmakers by promising to quit if it was approved.
May is considering one last push this week, arguing that Parliament's failure to back any other deal means her agreement is the best option available.
Parliament yesterday voted on four alternative proposals to May's rejected deal after lawmakers seized control of the schedule from the Government.
None got a majority, but the votes revealed a solid block of support for a "soft Brexit" that would maintain close economic ties between Britain and the EU. A plan to keep the UK in an EU customs union, ensuring seamless trade in goods, was defeated by just three votes.
May has ruled those options out, because sticking to EU trade rules would limit Britain's ability to forge new trade deals around the world. But tweaking her deal to adopt a customs union could gain May valuable votes in Parliament. It also would likely be welcomed by the EU and would allow Britain to leave the bloc in an orderly fashion in the next few months.
New Brexit referendum
Parliament also narrowly rejected a proposal for a new referendum on whether to leave the EU or remain.
The proposal for any Brexit deal to be put to a public vote in a "confirmatory referendum" was defeated by 12 votes.
It was backed by opposition parties, plus some of May's Conservatives — mainly
those who want to stay in the bloc.
Her Government has ruled out holding another referendum on Britain's EU membership, saying voters in 2016 made their decision to leave.
But with divisions in both Parliament and in May's Cabinet, handing the decision back to the people in a new plebiscite could be seen as the only way forward.
The alternative to a "no-deal" departure is to delay Brexit for at least several months, and possibly more than a year, to sort out the mess.
The EU is frustrated with the impasse and has said it will only grant another postponement if Britain comes up with a whole new Brexit plan.
The bloc is reluctant to have a departing Britain participate in the May 23-26 European Parliament elections, but that would have to be done if Brexit is delayed.
Still, EU Council President Donald Tusk has urged the bloc to give Britain a Brexit extension if it plans to change course.
A long delay raises the chances of an early British election, which could rearrange Parliament and break the deadlock.