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When it comes to Brexit, everyone in Parliament has an opinion

Lawmakers are struggling to unite around one plan for leaving the European Union.
Image: Prime Minister Theresa May as she speaks at the beginning of a debate in the House of Commons in London
Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Britain's House of Commons on Tuesday.Parliamentary Recording Unit / AFP - Getty Images

LONDON — In just two months, Britain is scheduled to leave the E.U.

But inside Parliament, where lawmakers need to agree on and approve exactly how that will happen, it can seem like there are as many opinions as there are days left until Brexit.

Two weeks ago, the divorce agreement Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the E.U. was spectacularly rejected by members of Parliament, including more than one-third of lawmakers from her own Conservative Party.

Since then, in the absence of a new plan being put forward by May, lawmakers’ calls for their own preferred type of Brexit have grown.

On Tuesday night, members of Parliament voted on competing proposals submitted by both pro-Brexit and pro-E.U. legislators. In the end, they demanded May return to Brussels to replace one of the more contentious parts of the agreement, known as the Irish backstop. It is an insurance policy that aims to prevent the reintroduction of a hard border between the Irish Republic, which will remain in the E.U., and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. and will leave the bloc on March 29.

The E.U. has consistently said the departure deal it struck with May last year is not open to renegotiation.

And even if May does manage to get concessions on the deal from Brussels, there's no guarantee that British lawmakers would unite around any new proposal.

The impasse has even the most experienced political experts scratching their heads on what's to come.

On Tuesday, lawmakers also approved a proposal calling on the government to stop a potentially disorderly "no-deal" scenario. While it is nonbinding, it sent a signal that a majority opposes such a departure.

But unless Parliament agrees to back some sort of plan, that default position is exactly what's in store. In the event of a chaotic "no-deal" Brexit, the Bank of England has warned the economy could shrink by as much as 8 percent in about a year. It also estimated that the country's GDP could be up to 10.5 percent lower by the end of 2023 than how the economy appeared to be heading before the 2016 referendum.

Image: Brexit supporters gather near Parliament in London
Brexit supporters gather near Parliament in London on Tuesday.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

In the hours before Tuesday's votes, lawmakers eagerly chatted with the press about why their preferred Brexit model would work best.

“I am 100 percent sure in so far as I can tell that the vast majority of my colleagues want to get an agreement with each other and with the E.U.,” Steve Baker, a Conservative member of Parliament, told NBC News.

Baker is a strong supporter of leaving the E.U. no matter what — with or without a deal. He put his support behind a plan to replace the Irish backstop with "alternative arrangements."

Lawmakers from other parties were just as certain that their way forward would be the one to eventually bring together the divided House of Commons.

“There’s a lot of division and discord in the country and the task for us in the Labour Party is to speak to those 'leave' voters and 'remain' voters and unite the country,” said senior Labour Party lawmaker Andy McDonald.

Despite the divisions both inside Parliament and out, there was a festive atmosphere in the streets as hundreds of protesters on both sides of the debate waved signs, flags and balloons.

“We want out,” shouted supporters of leaving the E.U.

Not far away, a bus campaigning for another referendum drove by, drawing cheers from a group carrying E.U. flags.

Image: An E.U. supporter demonstrates on a bus in London
An E.U. supporter demonstrates on a bus near Parliament on Tuesday.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

With exit day drawing ever-closer, British businesses have sent regular warnings on the consequences of leaving without a deal.

On Monday, seven supermarkets, three fast food chains and the British Retail Consortium trade group begged lawmakers to avoid leaving the E.U. without an agreement.

“We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a 'no-deal' Brexit,” they wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

The absence of an agreement would significantly disrupt goods coming into the U.K., the letter said, pointing out that in March, when Britain is set to leave the E.U., the vast majority of lettuce, tomatoes and soft fruit come from Europe.

Prices for basics could skyrocket, with the cost of beef increasing up to 29 percent, cheese up to 32 percent and tomatoes up to 18 percent, the BRC estimated in a report last year.

E.U. negotiators, meanwhile, have signaled frustration with Britain. The 28-country bloc's deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand said on Monday that there appeared to be a lack of "ownership" in Britain of the agreement struck between the two sides in November.

According to experts, the political deadlock is the result of a perfect storm.

“The divisions are down to the fact that we don’t do referendums very often and the U.K. system was never calibrated to respond to them," said Tim Durrant, a senior researcher on Brexit at the nonpartisan Institute for Government think tank. "In Britain's E.U. referendum, 'leave' could mean all things to all people.”

He added, "By holding a referendum and then taking the result as divine truth, it has changed how Parliament deals with finding a consensus.”

With the clock ticking, lawmakers are under more pressure than ever to come to some sort of compromise.

For Conservative lawmaker John Baron, the diversity of opinion is all part of the process.

“It’s a parliamentary democracy that’s actually working,” he said.