Theresa May’s Brexit strategy has been dealt a devastating blow after the House of Commons rejected her EU Withdrawal Agreement by an overwhelming majority for the second time.
MPs voted by 391 to 242 against the deal despite the Prime Minister’s assurance new agreements reached with Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg would ensure the UK cannot be trapped in the controversial backstop arrangement indefinitely.
Although the 149 margin was reduced from the record 230-vote defeat of the first “meaningful vote” in January, Mrs May was left far adrift from a majority with just 17 days to go to the scheduled date of Brexit on March 29.
Some 75 Conservative MPs rebelled to vote against the deal, while just three Labour MPs and four independents joined the 235 Tories who backed it.
In line with a promise set out by Mrs May last month, MPs are now due to vote on Wednesday on whether they are willing for the UK to leave the EU without a deal on March 29.
Mrs May announced she will grant Conservative MPs a free vote on a motion stating “this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework on the future relationship on March 29”.
If MPs reject no-deal – as most Westminster observers expect – a third vote will follow on Thursday on whether to authorise Mrs May to request an extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation process.
Members of the Malthouse Compromise group of Tories from both Leave and Remain wings immediately tabled an amendment proposing a “standstill” agreement lasting as late as the end of 2021, during which the UK would observe EU rules and pay into Brussels budgets while a full trade deal is negotiated.
A Labour Party spokesman said: “Allowing a free vote on no deal shows Theresa May has given up any pretence of leading the country.
“Once again, she’s putting her party’s interests ahead of the public interest.”
Battling with a croaky voice, Mrs May said she still believed leaving with a deal was the best option for Britain and “the deal we’ve negotiated is the best and indeed the only deal available”.
She told MPs: “Let me be clear. Voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems we face.
“The EU will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension and this House will have to answer that question.
“Does it wish to revoke Article 50? Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal, but not this deal?
“These are unenviable choices. Thanks to the decision that the House has made this evening, they are choices that must now be faced.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would once more put forward its own proposal for a deal and repeated his demand for a general election.
“The Prime Minister has run down the clock and the clock has been run out on her,” Mr Corbyn said.
“It’s time that we have a General Election and the people can choose who their Government should be.”
An extension of Article 50 requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 remaining member states and Mr Juncker has warned it cannot stretch beyond May 23 unless the UK takes part in the European Parliament elections starting on that date.
The European Commission president had already said if MPs turned down the package agreed in Strasbourg on Monday there would be “no third chance” to renegotiate.
Following the vote, a spokesman for European Council president Donald Tusk said the EU had done “all that is possible” to reach an agreement and would require “a credible justification” from the UK for any extension.
“It is difficult to see what more we can do,” he said.
“If there is a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London.”
He added: “Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 will consider it and decide by unanimity.
“The EU27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration.
“With only 17 days left to March 29, today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit.
“We will continue our no-deal preparations and ensure that we will be ready if such a scenario arises.”
The UK is set to publish further details of its own no-deal plans – including tariff rates for imports – on Wednesday.
A day of drama in Westminster began with Cabinet giving its approval to Mrs May’s package at an early-morning meeting in 10 Downing Street, which ended with the PM telling colleagues: “Today is the day. Let’s get this done.”
But the momentum moved sharply against the Prime Minister shortly afterwards as Attorney General Geoffrey Cox released formal legal advice that the changes secured by Mrs May “reduce the risk” the backstop will be permanent but do not remove it altogether.
The Star Chamber of lawyers convened by the Brexit-backing European Research Group declared three new documents agreed in Strasbourg failed to deliver the legally-binding changes demanded by the Commons.
The Democratic Unionist Party – which props up Mrs May’s minority administration in the Commons – said its 10 MPs would vote against the latest deal as “sufficient progress has not been achieved at this time”.
With husband Philip watching from the Commons gallery, the Prime Minister warned MPs “Brexit could be lost” if they gave her deal the thumbs-down again.
But she met a wall of hostility from opposition parties, while only a handful of former Tory rebels fell in behind her.
Brexit figurehead and former foreign secretary Boris Johnson told the Commons that Mrs May and Mr Cox had “sowed an apron of fig leaves that does nothing to conceal the embarrassment and indignity of the UK.”
Speaking ahead of the vote, the vice-chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, Charles Walker, said defeat would mean “a general election within a matter of days or weeks”.
He told the BBC: “It is not sustainable, the current situation in Parliament.”
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable later told the Press Association Mrs May’s authority was “completely shot”.
“How she can continue with the same plan of action is incomprehensible,” said Sir Vince.
“Something has got to give. I should imagine the Conservative Party will just put an end to this.”
A Downing Street source said the Prime Minister had not discussed resigning with her team and pointed out MPs had only recently expressed their confidence in the Government in a Commons vote.