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U.K. Parliament Faces a Key Brexit Question: What Does It Want?



LONDON — Trying to take control of Britain’s tortured departure from the European Union, lawmakers will attempt on Wednesday to answer the crucial question that has gone unanswered for two years: What does Parliament want?

Over the opposition of Prime Minister Theresa May, lawmakers are expected to vote on a range of options for the withdrawal process known as Brexit — an extremely rare rebuff of a British leader.

It could prove to be an extraordinary turning point, as members of Parliament weigh alternatives that Mrs. May has refused to put before them. A new consensus could emerge across party lines, and she could give in to mounting pressure within her party to say when she will step down.

Or, in the plausible event that the lawmakers prove unable to agree on anything, the voting might add to the chaos.

Parliament’s step comes amid a deepening crisis in British politics, with the government disintegrating, the cabinet paralyzed and with Mrs. May shifting strategies seemingly by the day and facing repeated calls to resign.

All of this is unfolding before an increasingly frustrated and cynical public that is asking searching questions about British democracy and the political elite, and whether either is capable of governing in the national interest.

In the meantime, the world looks on at Britain’s follies in bewilderment. “If you compared Britain to a sphinx, the sphinx would be an open book by comparison,” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, told the European Parliament on Wednesday at a meeting in Strasbourg, France. “Let’s see how that book speaks over the next week or so.”

Lawmakers have already twice rejected the Brexit agreement that Mrs. May painstakingly negotiated with the European Union, each time by large margins. Last week, European Union leaders agreed to Britain’s request to delay its departure, which had been set to take effect on Friday, to avoid a chaotic exit without a deal in place.

But time is short, and Europe has grown frustrated with the deadlock. Under the terms of the postponement, Brexit will take effect on May 22 only if Parliament accepts Mrs. May’s deal this week. If it does not, the new deadline is April 12.

The European Union is “expecting the United Kingdom to indicate a way forward,” Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said at the meeting in Strasbourg.

But European leaders reiterated that they were still open to a long Brexit delay — perhaps two years — if, as Mr. Tusk said, “the U.K. wishes to rethink its Brexit strategy.” That delay would have to be agreed to by April 12, just 16 days away.

Most analysts in Britain believe that Mrs. May is in the twilight of her premiership, and the dramatic events in Parliament underscore the extent to which she has lost control of a process that has divided her government and her party. She has suffered a series of cabinet resignations and defeats in parliamentary votes that has no parallel in modern British history.

Voting in Parliament is expected to begin at 7 p.m. Shortly before that, Mrs. May is to meet privately with lawmakers in her Conservative Party, some of whom are calling for her to stand down — and soon — as the price for them to switch their votes and support her unpopular Brexit plan.

There was a glimmer of hope for her. Some hard-line pro-Brexit lawmakers, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads a faction known as the European Research Group, are indicating that they might now support her deal, after months of opposing it.

Mrs. May’s plan could return to Parliament later this week if she gets more pledges of support, including from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, whose 10 lawmakers normally support the government but currently oppose Mrs. May’s Brexit blueprint.

On Wednesday, the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, a Conservative lawmaker, told the BBC there was a “real possibility” that Mrs. May’s plan could come back for a vote as soon as Thursday.

A third attempt to pass it would be a very tall order: Mrs. May would need to win the support of about 70 lawmakers who have already voted against it twice. If she managed that, she would almost certainly have quashed Parliament’s rebellion and ensured that Brexit would take place soon and on her terms.

On Wednesday, the focus will be on the extraordinary parliamentary proceedings, orchestrated by a multiparty group led by a veteran Conservative lawmaker, Oliver Letwin. About 16 options for Brexit have been proposed, perhaps half of which will be selected for voting by the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

Those are likely to include leaving the European Union but keeping very close ties to it, revoking Brexit, putting any plan to a referendum, and quitting without any agreement.

Lawmakers will be allowed to vote for as many of the options as they want. In the first instance, that is very unlikely to produce clarity, and another day of debate and votes will probably be required on Monday.

The government has said that it will not be bound by any result of these “indicative votes.” But some lawmakers are threatening that, if necessary, they will try to legislate to force the government to accept any consensus that ultimately emerges.

Mrs. May will be hoping that the prospect of Parliament’s agreeing to closer ties with the bloc than those envisaged in her plan will spook hard-line Brexit supporters into backing her proposals.

But some Conservative lawmakers also want her to resign soon so they can install a successor in whom they have more trust to take charge of detailed trade negotiations that would take place after Brexit.

Whether Mrs. May offers a detailed timetable for her resignation remains a pressing question. On Wednesday, asked whether she wanted Mrs. May to stay on, Ms. Leadsom said it was “a matter for her,” adding “I am not going to express a view.”

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