• With a March 29 deadline fast approaching and no consensus in Britain on a deal, Parliament will vote at around 5 p.m. Thursday on whether to push back the country’s scheduled date of departure from the European Union.
• Lawmakers have twice rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed withdrawal agreement by resounding margins. They hemmed her in further on Wednesday by passing a measure opposing any attempt to leave without an agreement.
• Mrs. May remains in power but is seriously compromised. Many Conservatives backed the anti-no-deal motion, against her wishes, and several members of her cabinet declined to vote against it, leading to speculation she has lost control of her party and the process.
• Parliament may try to take control of the Brexit process by voting on a series of amendments, one of which would schedule rapid-fire votes to determine what kind of plan a majority might support. Another amendment would demand time for a second referendum, but it is not expected to win approval.
Britain tries to buy some time
After months of bluster and grandstanding, of threats and political backstabbing, Parliament is paralyzed, meaning that lawmakers are now likely to try to stop the clock before the March 29 deadline. Parliament is returning on Thursday for a third consecutive day of Brexit voting, and it is widely assumed that lawmakers will support a measure to seek a delay.
But if voting for a delay postpones the deadline, it also creates new problems.
First, any delay would require approval from the other 27 member states of the European Union. And the big question is what sort of delay would be granted, and what would it accomplish.
Many experts say the European Union is likely to grant an extension, though how long it would last is less certain. Some supporters of Brexit fear that extending the deadline too far into the future could mean that the departure never happens. But a short delay would bring its own problems.
Elections for the European Parliament are scheduled to begin on May 23, so if the deadline is postponed beyond that date, Britain would be required to elect European lawmakers, even as it tried to finalize its departure from the bloc. Awkward.
Moreover, it took more than two years for Mrs. May’s government to negotiate her deal with Brussels. If a majority somehow emerges for a new exit deal, such a proposal would have to be negotiated with Brussels, and no one thinks a new deal could be accomplished by late May, assuming Brussels would even play ball.
And a more fundamental issue remains: British lawmakers have said they oppose leaving without a deal, a prospect they say could cause catastrophic damage to the economy, chaos at ports and shortages of food and medicine. But unless they actually vote for a deal, that is still what’s scheduled to happen. On its own, an extension would just change the date of the reckoning.
Will lawmakers take control?
Four amendments will be voted on after Thursday’s debate, including one that could effectively take control of the Brexit process from Prime Minister Theresa May, allowing Parliament to consider alternatives to her plan, and another calling for time to hold a second referendum.
The one to watch was proposed by Hilary Benn, an opposition Labour lawmaker and former minister, with support from some senior Conservatives. It would insist that lawmakers set aside next Wednesday to hold a series of rapid-fire votes on different plans, including ones keeping closer ties to the bloc, to determine which of them had the best chance of attracting a parliamentary majority.
These so-called indicative votes would take place the day before Mrs. May is scheduled to attend a summit of European Union leaders, and — if lawmakers ask her to — request a postponement of Brexit.
There is another amendment calling for the Brexit process to be prolonged to allow time for Parliament to find a majority for a different approach, but it is less likely to pass because it has been officially proposed by the opposition Labour Party.
Also in the mix is an amendment from Sarah Wollaston, an independent lawmaker, calling for an extension to demand time for a second referendum, though that is not expected to command a majority.
And another amendment from a Labour legislator, Chris Bryant, argues that Mrs. May should not be allowed to put her deal to the House of Commons again.
That aims to wreck Mrs. May’s plans to return with her unpopular plan to Parliament for a third time next week, before Parliament could potentially get the chance to consider alternatives.
The selection of amendments is the task of the speaker, John Bercow, who has infuriated Brexit hard-liners by declining to schedule a vote on an amendment intended to exclude the possibility of a second referendum.
European leaders hint at readiness for long delay
Delaying Brexit could only happen with the consent of the European Union, and in recent days opinion among its leaders seemed to harden. Many saw little room for further negotiations; it seemed only a general election or a second Brexit referendum would justify letting Britain postpone its departure by more than a few months.
That seemed to shift on Thursday when Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said European leaders should be “open to a long extension” of Britain’s membership.
The comments will give weight to Mrs. May’s threat to pro-Brexit politicians: Unless they back her deal in a third vote next week, they face a long delay to Brexit, during which opinion might shift toward a deal keeping closer ties with the bloc, or even another referendum.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, suggested that even a 21-month extension was a possibility, bringing the date of Britain’s departure to the end of 2020.
May struggles to stay in charge
Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted that the possibility of a no-deal Brexit should remain an option, arguing that to remove it from her negotiating arsenal would deny her leverage in dealing with the European Union.
Still, when Parliament convened on Wednesday, she supported the motion asking lawmakers to state that they were opposed to leaving the European Union on March 29 unless there was a deal in place.
Parliament went one step further and voted against leaving the bloc without a deal under any circumstances, at any time — a sharp rebuke to Mrs. May.
It was not the first time that members of Mrs. May’s own party have defied her, and there’s little reason to suspect that it will be the last.
On Tuesday, lawmakers soundly rejected, 391 votes to 242, the deal that Mrs. May had negotiated with European Union officials, including last-minute changes intended to persuade recalcitrant, pro-Brexit lawmakers who were concerned that Britain could be subjected to some of the bloc’s economic rules indefinitely.
It speaks to Mrs. May’s uphill struggle that there was a tiny silver lining in that 149-vote defeat: It was less emphatic than the first vote on the deal, in January, which lost by 230 votes, an astonishing margin in a 650-seat Parliament.
British governments rarely lose significant parliamentary votes, but Mrs. May has survived several Brexit-related setbacks — and a stream of cabinet resignations — that would ordinarily spell the end of a prime minister’s tenure.
But whispers of a strategy are proving true
Back in February, a television journalist sitting at a hotel bar in Brussels overheard Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, talking with colleagues. The journalist picked up what he described as an “extraordinary” admission, one that flew in the face of Prime Minister Theresa May’s public promises.
The plan, Mr. Robbins said, was for the government in March to present uncompromising Brexit supporters with an unpleasant choice: vote for Mrs. May’s reworked deal, or endure a significant delay to the process.
Britain’s political class was instantly abuzz. The foreign secretary denied there was any such plan. Mrs. May had until then insisted that Britain was leaving the European Union on March 29, and that any delay was unthinkable.
Well, fast forward to today, and Mrs. May is doing exactly as Mr. Robbins predicted. For all the chaos and humiliation of the past two days, pro-Brexit lawmakers are feeling renewed pressure to accept the deal they twice rejected.
Trump talks of trade potential
The prospects of a trade deal between Britain and the United States after Brexit have been seesawing for two years.
Before President Trump took office, he said a pact could be reached “very quickly.” But in an interview published while he was visiting Britain in July, he declared Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposals too favorable to the European Union, and in November he warned that her plan meant that Britain “may not be able to trade with us.”
On Thursday, Mr. Trump sounded a more optimistic note on Twitter.
He may be pushing against the tide in Parliament, however.
Mr. Trump has been allied with some of the most ardent proponents of a no-deal Brexit, like Nigel Farage. And supporters of Brexit have held up a trade deal with the United States as one of the prizes of a comprehensive break with the European Union. Lawmakers’ decisions in recent days have made that sort of hard Brexit — and that sort of wide-ranging trade deal — significantly less likely.
A potential surprise lurks in Parliament’s rule book
Among the curve balls thrown in the House of Commons on Wednesday was the assertion that the speaker, John Bercow, technically has the right to stop the government from bringing back the withdrawal agreement, rejected twice by large majorities, for a third vote.
The legal basis for this proposition lies deep within the Parliament’s rule book, the work of an assiduous 19th-century clerk named Erskine May. On Page 397, the rule book says that motions or amendments which are “the same, in substance, as a question which has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.”
In the flurry of constitutional nerdiness that followed, it emerged that the most recent House of Commons clerk had thrown cold water on this idea back in October.
“That rule is not designed to obstruct the will of the House,” said the clerk, Sir David Natzler. In other words, Mr. Bercow — a consistent champion of the rights of backbenchers — would hardly obstruct a third vote if lawmakers really wanted the chance to vote on it.
“It would be ridiculous for him to apply a rule, a literal construction of a rule, if it frustrated what the House wants,” said Jack Simson Caird, a former House of Commons scholar who is a senior research fellow at the Bingham Center for the Rule of Law.
The question was the subject of much debate Thursday morning, with most commentators concluding that Mr. Bercow — who opposed Brexit in the referendum, and has proved his willingness to frustrate Mrs. May’s agenda — was nonetheless unlikely to lob this particular hand grenade at her.
That said, we are in strange constitutional times, with Parliament seeking a way to play a role as the countdown to Brexit reaches its last stage.“It’s totally unprecedented,” Mr. Caird said. “The system really can’t cope with what’s being demanded of it.”
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