Is Brexit Dead? U.K. Government Suffers Worst Defeat in a Century

Perhaps the least desirable job in global politics at the moment is that of British prime minister, as the country's leader, Theresa May, struggles to deliver Brexit and emerges from the worst defeat inflicted on a U.K. government by Parliament in modern political history.

The reaction of British MPs to the result of Tuesday's historic vote illustrated how devastating the defeat was. An audible intake of breath could be heard following the announcement—a rejection of May's Brexit deal by 432 votes to 202.

Related: Europe washes hands of Brexit disaster, demands clarity: "Time is almost up"

The gasps of Britain's politicians were the overture to what will be weeks of turmoil in Parliament, and perhaps the death knell for the Brexit project in its entirety.

To find a defeat in the U.K.'s recent political history comparable to May's 230 vote drubbing, one has to look back to 1924, according to the British Institute for Government, which appraised records since 1918. A mechanical bread slicing machine was yet to be invented and Calvin Coolidge was the 30th U.S. president when the Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald was defeated by 166 votes.

The precedent for the government in 2019 is not a good one. MacDonald's loss precipitated a decisive general election victory for his Conservative rivals, the BBC reported.

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves No. 10 Downing Street ahead of a vote of no confidence in government, in London, on January 16. May said the defeat of her draft agreement with the EU could spell the end of Brexit. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In the wake of May's defeat, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has tabled a motion of no confidence in the prime minister which, though she is expected to survive the vote, could lead to another general election.

In the months-long buildup to what was dubbed "the meaningful vote," May and her government regularly briefed that a defeat for the draft agreement put before the Commons, outlining the future relationship of a post-Brexit U.K. with Europe, made the prospect of Brexit less likely.

Responding to the news of the defeat, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said he regretted the outcome of the vote. He added that the agreement, the result of 17 months of negotiations between Britain and the EU's 27 nations, was "the only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union."

The infographic below by Statista illustrates the largest parliamentary defeats for British governments.

20190116_May_Defeat_Newsweek (1)

In a later tweet, European Council President Donald Tusk seemed to imply that Britain should scrap the entire Brexit project in the face of the vote. "If a deal is impossible and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only possible solution is?" he asked.

Just as Europe's leaders may see the vote as an opportunity to avoid the existential crisis posed by Britain's 2016 decision to the leave, so too have Britain's pro-Europe politicians seen their hand strengthened by May's defeat.

While the PM has rejected calls for a "people's vote," a second referendum on Brexit that the U.K.'s europhile politicians think they could win, the national poll could present a way out of the present impasse while May's other options dwindle.

As the EU's leaders have made it clear they are not open to negotiations, the vote also increases the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit: a British exit from Europe which would see trade relations fall back on World Trade Organization rules.

Both Britain and the EU are preparing for a no-deal Brexit that May's government had sought to avoid on the grounds it would cause panic and yet more uncertainty.

The prime minister now has until Monday to present her "plan B" to Parliament. While plan B is likely to look much like the plan A that was so overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament, the only certainty is further political anguish.

This article was updated to include an infographic.