Theresa May lost control of Brexit after her revamped exit deal was overwhelmingly rejected by 149 votes in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening, leaving her authority in shreds.
Mrs May was forced to admit that Britain’s departure from the EU could be delayed beyond the scheduled date of March 29, hinting that parliament could force her to lead the UK towards a “softer Brexit” — including a customs union with the bloc and membership of its single market — if MPs continued to block her own deal.
Some 75 Tory MPs joined with Labour and other opposition parties to reject Mrs May’s deal for the second time; the only slim comfort for Number 10 was that the margin of defeat was smaller than the historic 230 deficit in January’s vote.
Sterling slid by about 0.6 per cent against the dollar over the day to below $1.31, and fell 1.1 per cent against the euro.
Business groups were aghast at the development. “It’s time for Parliament to stop this circus,” said the Confederation of British Industry lobby group. “This must be the last day of failed politics. Jobs and livelihoods depend on it.”
“We are now staring down the precipice,” added the City of London Corporation. “Politicians of every hue must overcome their differences and make avoiding a no-deal Brexit the absolute priority.”
Immediately after her defeat Mrs May announced that MPs would be given a free vote on Wednesday on blocking a no-deal exit on March 29; a second vote on Thursday would allow MPs to seek an extension to the formal Article 50 exit process from the EU.
The government motion to be debated on Wednesday opposes leaving the EU without a deal. Mrs May is expected to back it — infuriating Tory Eurosceptics — although Downing Street declined to say how she would vote.
The move was an act of desperation for Mrs May whose negotiating strategy lies in tatters. Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary who is among a number of MPs jockeying to replace her, declared: “This deal has reached the end of the road.”
Charles Walker, vice-chair of the Tory backbench 1922 committee and a May loyalist, said there would have to be an election. “We cannot continue to behave like this as a government,” he said. “It is not fit for purpose.”
Mrs May admitted that if MPs demanded an extension of Article 50, Britain would have to accept the EU’s terms for allowing a delay to Brexit; the empty seats on the Tory benches spoke to a prime minister whose authority is leaching away.
The prime minister said if Brexit was delayed, MPs would have to confront “an unenviable choice” of whether to back her deal — which she insisted was “the only deal available” — or agree a different deal. Alternatively there might be no Brexit or a second referendum.
In an implicit threat to Eurosceptic MPs, Downing Street did not rule out giving MPs an “indicative vote” on the kind of Brexit they would like to see. Labour and pro-European Tories believe a Commons majority could form around a soft Brexit.
A spokesperson for Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said that, since the EU had offered Mrs May three sets of reassurances since December, “there is no more we can do”.
“If there is a solution to the current impasse it has to be found in London,” the statement said.
Mrs May won a number of new “legally binding” assurances from Mr Juncker in Strasbourg to show the backstop could only be temporary, but her initiative was in effect wrecked by her own attorney-general.
A three-page legal opinion by Geoffrey Cox, the government’s chief legal officer, published on Tuesday morning, said Mrs May’s deal would “reduce the risk” of Britain remaining in a customs union with the EU against its will but crucially it added that “the legal risk remains”.
Mrs May admitted negotiations with Brussels could go no further, telling the cabinet: “Today is the day.” The EU will demand to know from Mrs May what would be the point of delaying Brexit unless she comes up with a new strategy.
Some Eurosceptic Tory MPs switched their support behind Mrs May on Tuesday because they feared that a delay to Brexit could end up leading to a soft Brexit or the possible reversal of their project altogether.
But many more Tory MPs, along with those in Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist party, which normally provides the government with its parliamentary majority, continued to defy the prime minister on the grounds that the so-called Irish backstop in the exit deal could leave Britain “trapped” in the customs union. The backstop is intended to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Some cabinet ministers claim privately that Mrs May will have to quit as prime minister, clearing the way for a Eurosceptic Tory to take her place. But one senior ally said: “I don’t think she’ll step down. It won’t solve anything.”
After meeting with Mrs May in Strasbourg, Mr Juncker told MEPs that he saw no reason for an extension if MPs rejected the deal, according to a witness. “We don’t need a short extension to prepare for no deal,” said one senior EU diplomat.
Germany and other EU member states are more open to a deal and expect a request to be granted, albeit potentially with conditions attached. One senior EU official said a short extension to allow for no-deal preparations made sense.
Mr Juncker made clear that for any extension beyond May 23 the UK would be “legally required” to participate in elections to the European Parliament.
The office of French president Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed that an extension would have to be agreed unanimously by the 27 remaining members and would be “totally unacceptable without a credible alternative strategy on the part of the UK”.
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