British lawmakers were yesterday set to stave off the threat of a no-deal exit from the European Union on March 29 but the second defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce treaty has left the country heading into the Brexit unknown.
After two-and-a-half years of tortuous divorce negotiations with the EU and two failed attempts to get her exit deal ratified by parliament, May said she would vote against a no-deal exit that investors fear would spook financial markets, dislocate supply chains and damage the world's fifth largest economy.
Lawmakers will vote shortly after 1900 GMT on a government motion which states that parliament rejects leaving the EU without a deal on March 29 but notes that leaving without a deal remains the legal default unless a deal is agreed.
While the motion has no legal force and ultimately does not prevent a no-deal exit, if lawmakers support it as expected then they will get a vote today on whether to delay Brexit, probably by months.
Finance minister Philip Hammond said he could free billions of pounds for extra public spending or tax cuts if parliament spared Britain the shock of leaving the world's biggest trading bloc without an agreement to smooth the transition.
"Leaving with no deal would mean significant disruption in the short and medium term and a smaller, less prosperous economy in the long term, than if we leave with a deal," Hammond told parliament.
Sterling was unmoved during Hammond's speech, holding its earlier gains on the back of hopes that lawmakers will vote against a no-deal Brexit.
After lawmakers crushed her deal for a second time on Tuesday, May said it was still the best option for leaving in an orderly fashion.
"I want to leave the European Union with a good deal, I believe we have a good deal," she told parliament. May said the government would not instruct her Conservative Party's lawmakers how to vote.
Lawmakers have submitted alternative proposals, including a plan for a "managed" no-deal exit, which could also be voted upon.
As the United Kingdom's three-year Brexit crisis spins towards its finale, diplomats and investors see four main options: a delay, May's deal passing at the last minute, an accidental no-deal exit or another referendum.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "We have not given up the goal of an orderly exit (for Britain) but yesterday's events mean the options have become narrower."
If Britain does seek a delay, all the bloc's other 27 members must agree to it.
The EU would prefer a short extension, with the deadline of EU-wide parliamentary elections due May 24-26. It is unclear how such a short extension could solve the Brexit impasse in London.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc would need to know why Britain wanted to extend talks and it was up to London to find a way out of the deadlock.
"If the UK still wants to leave the EU in an orderly manner, this treaty is - and will remain - the only treaty possible," Barnier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
As Brexit uncertainty spills into foreign exchange, stock and bond markets across the world, investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan are offering different probabilities on the outcomes.
"We continue to see a 55 percent chance that a close variant of the prime minister's Brexit deal is eventually ratified, after a three-month extension of Article 50," Goldman said. Its best guess was that a reversal of Brexit had a 35 percent probability and a no-deal Brexit a 10 percent probability.
Brexit minister Stephen Barclay said no-deal remained preferable to staying in the EU.
"If you pushed me to the end point where it's a choice between no deal and no Brexit ... I think no deal is going to be very disruptive for the economy and I think no deal also has serious questions for the union," he told BBC radio.
"But I think no Brexit is catastrophic for our democracy. Between those very unpleasant choices, I think no Brexit is the bigger risk."
The EU said there could be no more negotiations with London on the divorce terms.
Britons voted by 52-48 percent in 2016 to leave the bloc, a decision that has split the main political parties and exposed deep rifts in British society.