A delay to Brexit looks inevitable after Theresa May’s EU deal suffered another humiliating Commons defeat.
MPs voted by 391 to 242 to reject the prime minister’s revised plans for the UK’s exit from the EU, with hardline Tory eurosceptics and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) teaming up with Labour to dash her hopes of an historic breakthrough.
The margin was smaller than May’s 230-vote defeat in January, but the result was still decisive and plunged the country into fresh instability just 17 days before the planned exit day of March 29.
A delay in Brexit, possibly of nearly three months to late May, is now seen by both ministers and the opposition as almost certain.
MPs were expected to vote against a no-deal outcome on Wednesday, and then to approve a short extension of the UK’s membership of the European Union to give one last chance at getting Commons support.
With May’s tattered premiership on the brink, No.10 ruled out a fresh general election – despite warnings from one Conservative grandee that a new poll should take place “within weeks” because the current impasse was unsustainable.
The fresh Commons defeat followed another day of high drama at Westminster as the European Research Group (ERG) of backbench Brexiteers declared themselves unconvinced by May’s new proposals hammered out with Brussels overnight.
Scores of Tory MPs put aside their objections and swung behind a hoarse-voiced PM after her final plea for unity, as she warned that “Brexit could be lost” if her deal was rejected again.
But more hardliner backbenchers stood firm in their belief that the so-called Northern Ireland backstop would tie the UK indefinitely to EU rules.
Earlier, Brexiteers seized on new legal advice from the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, which confirmed that Britain could still be trapped in the arrangement for years after it had formally left the 28-nation bloc.
Cox ruled that although “alternative arrangements” may remove any need to use the backstop, last-minute changes the prime minister negotiated in Strasbourg on Monday night would only “reduce the risk” to the UK rather than eliminate it entirely.
The DUP also pounced on the attorney general’s brutal verdict that “the UK would have... no internationally lawful means of exiting” the link to Brussels.
The Northern Ireland party, which props up 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”.
Thoughts will now turn to an extension beyond the EU summit next week, followed by a third meaningful vote on May’s Brexit plan.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday that there would be no “third chance” to get an improved deal.
In a key section of her speech to MPs, May said that if her plan was defeated: “It would be no good blaming EU, responsibility would lie with this House.”
One cabinet minister told HuffPost UK that the PM should follow any defeat with a move to extend Article 50 and a series of ‘indicative votes’ to allow MPs to finally make a forced choice of the alternatives on offer.
“What Juncker said last night about this being it, no more clarifications of clarifications, is right. I think she [the PM] thinks there’s nothing further to extract from the EU,” they said.
“Today, we may have seen the high water mark for a hard Brexit. Parliament is likely to vote for something softer, if allowed that choice.”
One Whitehall source added: “She has two options now: extension or election.”
Following the vote of confidence in her Tory leadership last December, May assured MPs she would not fight the next election as leader.
A No.10 spokesman said: “We are not preparing for and do not want a general election.”