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The House of Commons descended into angry recriminations on Monday night, after MPs again failed to agree on an alternative to Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
With just 11 days before the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU, parliament voted down four separate proposals for a soft Brexit, a second referendum and an insurance mechanism to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
In the aftermath, Nick Boles, a former Conservative minister who narrowly failed in a push to keep the UK in the single market and a customs union with the EU, dramatically resigned from the party.
“I have failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise. I regret therefore to announce that I can no longer sit for this party,” he told the Commons.
Meanwhile, Ken Clarke, the former Conservative chancellor, blamed supporters of a second referendum for scuppering his own attempt to keep the UK in a customs union, which was defeated by just three votes. Another round of the so-called indicative votes is scheduled for Wednesday, giving MPs possibly a final chance to take control of the process.
Mrs May, the prime minister, will on Tuesday try to chart a route out of the Brexit crisis at a special cabinet meeting scheduled to last five hours, where deeply divided ministers will discuss options including a snap general election.
She faces resignations from Eurosceptic ministers if she tries to work across party lines in search of a softer Brexit. “A customs union is a betrayal of Brexit,” said Liam Fox, the international trade secretary.
Meanwhile, pro-Europe ministers are urging Mrs May to listen to the will of parliament and keep Britain in a customs union or single market. Ministers and MPs from the 40-strong One Nation Tory group met Mrs May on Monday to make the case.
With both sides at loggerheads, some in Downing Street are urging Mrs May to call an early election to win a fresh mandate for her Brexit deal; the Conservative party is making contingency plans for such a poll.
But one pro-EU minister said: “I would not vote for it and neither would the vast majority of Tory MPs. You can’t desert your post in the middle of a crisis. The prime minister’s performance at the last election is not something people would want to repeat.”
Monday’s votes, which were intended to break the deadlock, instead deepened the sense of crisis at Westminster. Mr Clarke’s proposal for a customs union received 273 votes in favour, and 276 against. Mr Boles’s Common Market 2.0, involving single market and customs union membership, failed by 261 votes to 282. The Labour party ordered its MPs to vote in favour of the proposal, which would mean continued free movement for EU nationals, despite promising to end the practice in its manifesto for the 2017 general election.
The most popular proposal was a second referendum, with 280 votes. But it was backed by only 15 Conservative MPs, and lost by a margin of 12. Anti-Brexit MPs said they now planned to come up with a combined plan, making a soft Brexit conditional on a new public vote, in order to strengthen their chances on Wednesday.
Mrs May is hoping to bring back her Brexit deal for a fourth vote, hoping that Eurosceptic MPs will buckle and support the plan rather than risk an early election, a second referendum or a softer Brexit.
But she is running out of time: the European Council meets on April 10 to decide whether to grant Britain another extension to the Article 50 Brexit process and will expect Mrs May to set out a clear plan for ending the crisis.
Stephen Barclay, Brexit secretary, said after the vote: “The only option is to find a way through which allows the UK to leave with a deal. The government continues to believe that the best course of action is to do so as soon as possible.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, said on Twitter: “The House of Commons again votes against all options. A hard #Brexit becomes nearly inevitable. On Wednesday, the U.K. has a last chance to break the deadlock or face the abyss.”
One of Monday’s defeated Brexit proposals had sought to avoid a no-deal Brexit, by paving the way for a long delay or possibly a revocation of the Article 50 notice. It failed to win the support of the Labour leadership, and lost by a margin of 101 votes.
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