Theresa May has won House of Commons backing for her “third time lucky” plan to push through her Brexit deal next week, amid signs that Eurosceptic opposition is starting to crumble under the threat of a long delay to Britain’s exit from the EU.
After a series of chaotic Brexit defeats earlier in the week, Mrs May restored some semblance of control on Thursday when MPs backed her cobbled-together plan to put pressure on Brexiters by seeking a delay to Britain’s scheduled March 29 exit date.
The Commons backed by 412-202 Mrs May’s strategy to apply to the EU next week for a short delay in Brexit until June 30, if MPs finally endorse her exit deal at the third time of asking next Tuesday.
Mrs May’s successful motion also said that if MPs threw out the deal again next week there could be a longer extension beyond June 30, requiring Britain to take part in European Parliament elections in May.
Eight Eurosceptic cabinet ministers voted against a delay to Brexit but Mrs May avoided another bust-up with her party by giving Tory MPs a free vote on the issue. Those voting against the delay included Steve Barclay, Brexit secretary; Liam Fox, trade secretary; Andrea Leadsom, leader of the Commons; and Gavin Williamson, defence secretary. Chief whip Julian Smith abstained.
Thursday’s votes set up what David Lidington, Mrs May’s de facto deputy, told MPs was a “stark” choice: accept Mrs May’s deal next week or face a delay to Brexit which some have warned could last until 2020 or beyond.
The public response from the EU was guarded after the vote. While EU diplomats do not expect any extension request to be rejected outright, there is no consensus between the 27 remaining member states over how long to delay Britain’s exit date and what conditions to apply.
A European Commission spokesperson stressed that any extension required unanimous support from EU leaders and would “need to ensure the functioning of the EU institutions” as well as the reasons for the delay.
But Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has said he will make the case for a long extension that allows Britain to “rethink” its approach to Brexit when he consults EU leaders in the run-up to next week’s European Council meeting.
Mr Lidington confirmed that if Mrs May’s deal were rejected, the government would provide time after next week’s European Council to test support for other Brexit options, likely to include a permanent customs union with the EU and single market membership.
Eurosceptic Tory MPs and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, to date adamant opponents of the deal, now face the risk that if they continue to vote down Mrs May’s accord there could be a long delay to the UK’s exit from the EU, possibly ending with a much softer Brexit.
The Commons victory raised spirits in Downing Street after another gruelling week, with senior Tories believing that the 10 DUP MPs and some of the 75 Tory MPs who voted against Mrs May’s deal this week could be shifting their position.
Arlene Foster, DUP leader, said on a visit to Washington, where she met Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, that “nobody wants to leave without a deal”. She said the party was working on reaching an agreement with the government.
The pro-Brexit Conservative European Research Group met on Thursday to discuss tactics and also signalled a more emollient approach, with several members saying that they were considering swinging behind the prime minister’s deal.
On a rare night of Commons success for Mrs May, MPs also voted by 334-85 to throw out an amendment calling for a second EU referendum.
Earlier, Mrs May rebuked pro-Europe ministers for defying her in votes on Wednesday. “It was quite uncomfortable for them, but better than being sacked,” said one person briefed on the meeting.
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