Theresa May on Friday warned of “grave implications” for Britain as her Brexit plan suffered a third heavy House of Commons defeat, leaving the country heading for a new “cliff edge” exit from the EU on April 12.
The prime minister could be pushed towards a much softer form of Brexit next week when MPs vote on whether to unite around a new policy in which the UK would stay in a customs union with the EU and perhaps the bloc’s single market.
Downing Street officials said Mrs May could even call a general election to break the impasse at Westminster, after MPs voted by 344 to 286 to reject her withdrawal treaty on the day Britain was originally scheduled to leave the EU.
“I think it should be a matter of profound regret that once again we have been unable to support leaving the EU in an orderly fashion,” Mrs May told MPs. “The implications of the decision are grave.”
The latest Commons vote against the prime minister’s Brexit deal means the UK is now scheduled to leave on April 12, with or without an agreement.
Donald Tusk, European Council president, announced he would convene an emergency meeting of EU leaders on April 10 to decide whether to allow Britain to delay Brexit beyond April 12.
This extension would require the UK to take part in European Parliament elections in May, something Mrs May has long opposed. Both Eurosceptic and anti-Brexit parties might be expected to flourish if the elections took place.
As pro-Leave protesters gathered outside parliament, some 28 Eurosceptic Conservatives voted with Labour and other opposition parties to reject Mrs May’s withdrawal treaty.
With the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist party also opposed to Mrs May’s deal, and the DUP suggesting it might be better to stay in the EU than to support the prime minister’s plan, her strategy appeared to be unravelling.
If MPs had approved the withdrawal treaty on Friday, it would have delivered Brexit on May 22.
Mrs May, responding to the latest rejection of her deal, said parliament was “reaching its limits” in finding an agreed exit from the EU.
MPs are set to hold another round of so-called indicative votes on alternative plans to Mrs May’s deal on Monday.
The first round of such votes on Wednesday failed to produce a Commons majority for a different way forward to her deal, but backbench MPs hope parliament could on Monday coalesce around a customs union and possibly the single market.
MPs are then proposing to bring forward legislation on Thursday requiring Mrs May to adopt their preferred Brexit Plan B — a constitutional novelty that would in effect see the legislature usurp the powers of the executive.
Downing Street suggested one option might be for Mrs May to try to revive her Brexit deal by putting it in a “run-off” in the Commons against the alternative favoured by MPs.
The prime minister’s aides highlighted how the margin of defeat on her deal had reduced over the three votes on it since January.
“Clearly it was not the result we wanted,” said one of Mrs May’s allies, referring to the latest Commons vote. “But, that said, we have had a number of senior Conservative colleagues who have felt able to vote with the government today.
“They have done so in higher numbers than previously. Clearly there is more work to do. We are at least going in the right direction.”
A total of 41 Tory MPs voted for Mrs May’s deal for the first time on Friday, but 34 rejected it, including six pro-Europeans as well the diehard Brexiters who appear determined to resist the exit package.
The DUP has insisted it cannot accept the so-called backstop in the withdrawal treaty to prevent a hard Irish border, which could keep Northern Ireland, but not the rest of the UK, within the EU’s single market for goods.
Nigel Dodds, DUP leader at Westminster, called on Mrs May to return to Brussels and secure legally binding changes to the treaty.
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