Theresa May’s Brexit deal suffered another crushing defeat – with the government losing by 149 votes tonight in the House of Commons. This is the second time May’s Brexit deal has been put to a vote. The loss today represented a significant reduction on the record-breaking 230 majority against her deal in January. But it was still an epic defeat for the Prime Minister.
Some 235 Conservatives, three Labour MPs and four Independents voted for May’s deal. But 75 Conservatives rebelled against the government, as well as all ten DUP MPs.
Here at Westminster, there was despair this evening in the wake of the vote among Tory MPs and ministers who voted for the deal
“My f***ing colleagues. I am so angry. The ERG had an open goal and they kicked it over the stands,” said one MP who felt that the die-hard Brexiteers have opened the way to a General Election or a reversal of Brexit.
A desperate government moved this evening to plot a way forward. In May’s statement immediately after the vote she said she would honour the commitment made two weeks ago to put two further votes to MPs. The first will ask MPs whether they think the UK should leave the EU with no deal. If MPs vote to take no deal off the table, they will then be asked whether the UK should seek to extend Article 50.
However, the Prime Minister made clear that even if MPs vote against leaving the EU with no deal tomorrow, a no deal Brexit still remains the legal default. She re-emphasised her commitment to seeing the UK leaving the EU in an “ordered” fashion, possibly indicating that she has still not entirely given up on her deal.
Jeremy Corbyn, in response to May’s statement said that the government must now finally acknowledge that its deal is “dead” and instead, the Commons must unite around a workable proposal. He outlined Labour’s Customs Union proposal again, but indicated that he would be willing to negotiate from that starting point. Corbyn too called for a general election, to cheers from the opposition benches.
Ian Blackford, Westminster leader of the SNP told May that the case for a second referendum is now unavoidable.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has since said that an extension to Article 50 is inevitable.
Cox was one of the central figures in a day of high drama.
Despite changes secured by Theresa May’s last minute dash to Strasbourg last night, Cox at lunchtime warned that the “legal risk” of the UK being trapped in the backstop with no route out “remains unchanged.” Hopes had been high last night that the changes secured by May might just be enough to eke her deal over the line, but on publication of Cox’s legal advice this morning it became quickly clear that Brexiteer MPs were insufficiently moved by the changes.
There was a late surge for the deal. By 6pm, 21 Tory MPs, including Graham Brady, had switched sides from the previous vote, indicating that they would now support May’s deal. However, with the DUP revealing they would not back the deal this afternoon, defeat looked inevitable. The DUP cited a lack of “sufficient progress” on the backstop as their reason – and their decision came shortly after the publication of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice.
Stephen Barclay echoed Cox’s advice to MPs in the chamber today – that this vote was not a matter of legal judgement, but of political judgement. That judgement appeared lacking among some, with Conservative MP Steve Double revealing to the chamber just 20 minutes before the vote that he had “still” not made up his mind.
Closing the debate before the vote, Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer told the chamber that “today has caught up with tomorrow.” It was a good turn of phrase. With 16 days until Brexit with no clear plan on what happens next, and the government in disarray ahead of Parliament trying to take back control, Starmer is right. Today has caught up tomorrow.
There are whispers that Tory MPs and cabinet ministers will have a go overnight at persuading May to stand aside. Notices on preparations for no deal will also be published at 7am on Tuesday. The most likely outcome appears to be the Commons moving this week to kill off no deal and demanding an extension.