Brexit: May slumps to crushing defeat to Tory rebels over no deal


Theresa May suffered another Brexit humiliation tonight as she was abandoned by Tory MPs from both wings of the party.

The PM crashed to defeat in a crunch vote on her EU plan by 303 to 258 after furious Eurosceptics abstained claiming she was sneakily trying to take no deal off the table.

As any illusion of Conservative unity was shattered, Remainers also snubbed her for the opposite reason that she was not dismissing the idea of crashing out. 

Mrs May did not even bother to enter the chamber to hear the grim result, with Jeremy Corbyn demanding to know where she was and taunting that she ‘can’t keep running the clock down’.

The blow came despite Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay desperately trying to reassure mutinous MPs that no deal is not being taken off the table – and warning that Brussels will conclude the UK’s ‘resolve is weakening’. 

As she faced a pincer movement, Remainers also sat on their hands in the key vote after being infuriated by Mr Barclay’s tough words in the debate. 

Mrs May has been pleading for more time to secure concessions on the Irish border backstop that could win MPs’ support for her deal. 

The defeat has no binding effect on the government, but plunges her deeper into chaos and could persuade the EU there is no point offering any more concessions.  

Amid signs that Downing Street was already engaged in damage limitation, Mrs May was notably absent from the start of the debate this afternoon.

And although she was in the House to vote this evening, she was not spotted in the chamber. 

Theresa May was notably absent from the Commons chamber as the grim result was declared and Jeremy Corbyn taunted that she 'can't keep running the clock down'

Theresa May was notably absent from the Commons chamber as the grim result was declared and Jeremy Corbyn taunted that she ‘can’t keep running the clock down’

Theresa May (pictured at No10 today) must navigate a minefield in the House of Commons as tensions rise with the clock running down to the UK's departure 

Theresa May (pictured at No10 today) must navigate a minefield in the House of Commons as tensions rise with the clock running down to the UK’s departure 

The PM crashed to defeat in a crunch vote on her EU plan by 303 to 258 after furious Conservative Eurosceptics declared they would abstain

The PM crashed to defeat in a crunch vote on her EU plan by 303 to 258 after furious Conservative Eurosceptics declared they would abstain

Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay today tried to reassure mutinous Eurosceptic MPs that no deal is not being taken off the table

The spat with Brexiteers centred on a Remainer-backed amendment that was passed by MPs two weeks ago rejecting the idea of no deal. 

An amendment put forward by former Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman said the UK should not ‘leave the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship’. 

What are the amendments MPs will vote on tonight?

Commons Speaker John Bercow has selected three amendments to tonight’s Government motion that were voted on from 5pm. He rejected proposals to stage votes among MPs on all possible options and a plan for a new referendum.  

Jeremy Corbyn amendment A

Demands a new meaningful vote to approve the deal is held on or before February 27 or instead that MPs are given the power to take control of Brexit. 

The amendment was defeated 322 to 306. 

Ian Blackford amendment I 

Demands at least a three month extension to Article 50 to avoid a no deal Brexit on March 29. 

The amendment was defeated 512 to 93. 

Anna Soubry amendment E 

Demands the Government publish the most recent advice given to Cabinet on the implications of no deal.

The amendment was withdrawn by Ms Soubry after ministers promised to release the information instead of the specific document. 

The Speaker declined to select a raft of other amendments. They included: 

Ken Clarke amendment C 

Creates a new procedure to give MPs a ballot on all the viable options for the next step on Brexit. Unlike a usual Commons vote, it would allow MPs to rank the choices to find the most popular. 

Angus MacNeil amendment D

Demands Article 50 is revoked and Brexit cancelled.  

Sarah Wollaston amendment F

Tries to set up indicative votes in the Commons on the way ahead using a more conventional procedure than the Ken Clarke plan. If one option is backed by MPs, it would instruct the PM to renegotiate along those lines. If two or more are backed by MPs, it would demand a referendum. If none of the plans are backed by MPs, a referendum of May’s deal vs Remain would be held. 

It was narrowly approved by 318 votes to 310 despite the government whipping against.

Although that vote was not binding on ministers, the government motion due to be considered tonight endorses ‘the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January’. 

That was apparently intended as a reference to the Brady amendment, which called for the Irish backstop to be replaced with ‘alternative arrangements’ and was passed with Mrs May’s blessing.   

However, it has been interpreted by Brexiteers as Mrs May admitting that no deal is off the agenda – despite her repeatedly insisting it is still a possibility.

During the debate, Tory MP Bill Cash said branded the Government motion ‘doublethink’ and said it ‘further undermines public trust’.

He said: ‘We’re now truly entering the world of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

‘In his book 1984 Orwell said doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and expecting both of them.

‘This double motion is doublethink in action and I cannot possibly vote for it.’ 

But former chancellor Ken Clarke launched a scathing attack on the ERG. 

He said: ‘The Government has pursued one of the factions on our side of the House, we have a kind of breakaway party within a party, a bit like Momentum really, they’ve got their leader, they’ve got their chief whip.

‘They are ardent right-wingers, and the Government has set off in pursuit of these bizarre negotiating tactics that some of them say, though some of them seem to want to leave with no deal, because any agreement with foreigners from the continent is a threat to our sovereignty.’

He warned that is ‘the wrong group to pursue’, and called the Brady amendment ‘meaningless’.

But after Mr Barclay entreated Eurosceptics to fall in line, Remainer former Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin said he now believed Mrs May would go for no deal.

‘When the chips are down, (she) will actually prefer to do what some of my esteemed colleagues prefer, and to head for the exit door without a deal, which the secretary of state informed us is the policy of Her Majesty’s government in the event that her deal has not succeeded. That is terrifying fact,’ he told the House. 

Frantic peace talks took place with chief whip Julian Smith overnight to see if the motion could be reworded, but they appeared to reach no settlement.

There had been hopes that the clash could still be diverted as Labour sources told MailOnline the party plans to back an amendment from Tory rebel Anna Soubry.

That would have delete the Government motion – including the wording that has offended Eurosceptics – and replace it with a demand for official assessments of the impact of no deal. But the government eventually conceded it will publish the information at a later stage, and Ms Soubry withdrew. 

Mr Barclay urged Tories not to give the EU any evidence that 'our resolve is weakening'

Mr Barclay urged Tories not to give the EU any evidence that ‘our resolve is weakening’

Former Cabinet minister David Davis pushed the Brexit Secretary to confirm that no deal was still an option for the government 

Former Cabinet minister David Davis pushed the Brexit Secretary to confirm that no deal was still an option for the government 

In a rare bright spot for Mrs May, she was spared battle over a cross-party amendment tabled by Remainers designed to force a referendum, as it was not selected by Speaker John Bercow.  

One senior MP told MailOnline the spat showed the level of ‘distrust’ between Brexiteers and the leadership. 

Opening the debate this afternoon, Mr Barclay issued a plea to Brexiteers to hold their fire.

‘Colleagues should be in no doubt that the EU will be watching our votes tonight carefully for any sign that our resolve is weakening,’ he said. 

May willing to go for ‘terrifying’ no-deal Brexit, says Tory MP 

A Tory former Cabinet minister today warned he has come to the ‘terrifying’ conclusion Theresa May will go for no-deal Brexit. 

Sir Oliver Letwin said he now believed Mrs May was ready to let the UK crash out.

‘When the chips are down, (she) will actually prefer to do what some of my esteemed colleagues prefer, and to head for the exit door without a deal, which the secretary of state informed us is the policy of Her Majesty’s government in the event that her deal has not succeeded,’ he told the House. 

‘That is terrifying fact.’  

He played down the significance of the Spelman amendment – pointing out that MPs had already voted to leave the EU on March 29, deal or no deal. 

‘The legislation, frankly, takes precedence over that motion,’ he said. 

There were signs the intervention might be enough to stave off a revolt.

ERG chair Jacob Rees-Mogg told ITV he was likely to abstain.

‘Today’s business is not fundamentally important. It’s all about where the govt is going,’ he said. 

‘So this is a secondary issue rather than a primary one and that’s why I think it’s highly unlikely people will be voting against this motion.’ 

But Conservative former cabinet minister Justine Greening raised fears that the Government was ignoring a vote by MPs to reject a no-deal Brexit.

She warned ministers that they could not ‘pick and choose’ which votes it supports, describing this approach as ‘fundamentally wrong and anti-democratic’.

Dame Caroline Spelman, another Tory former minister, pressed the point and said ‘equal respect’ must be given to the no-deal motion approved by MPs along with the attempts to negotiate changes to the Irish border backstop.

She said: ‘If he fails to do that, it is contemptuous of this House.’ 

Labour MP Hilary Benn said: ‘We are careering towards the cliff, she’s at the wheel, and the Cabinet are sitting in the back seat. And at some point they are going to have to decide to lean over and take the steering wheel off her. Because if that doesn’t happen then a no-deal Brexit might come to pass.’ 

Earlier, Trade Secretary Liam Fox pleaded with his colleagues not to rebel, warning that the Commons is not an ‘internal debating society’ and it would ‘send the wrong signals’ to Brussels. 

Dr Fox told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: ‘Our European partners will be watching our debate and listening today to see if they get the impression that if they were to make those concessions Parliament would definitely deliver. 

‘There’s a danger that we send the wrong signals.’ 

But ERG vice-chair Steve Baker shot back: ‘Conservative MPs really ought not to be associated with anything, express or implied, which seems to take no deal off the table.

‘Compromising no deal would be the daftest negotiating strategy and not in the national interest. Today’s storm in a teacup only arises because the Government’s motion is not neutral. This unnecessary carry on is wanted by no one.’  

Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured leaving his London home today) is set to play a pivotal role in another day of Brexit drama at Parliament

Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured leaving his London home today) is set to play a pivotal role in another day of Brexit drama at Parliament

Mr Corbyn (pictured leaving home today) is tackling conflicting opinions on whether to back a second referendum - with some frontbenchers clear that they would not back one

Mr Corbyn (pictured leaving home today) is tackling conflicting opinions on whether to back a second referendum – with some frontbenchers clear that they would not back one

Tory Chief Whip Julian Smith (pictured leaving No10 today) appears to have failed to make peace with Eurosceptic MPs

Tory Chief Whip Julian Smith (pictured leaving No10 today) appears to have failed to make peace with Eurosceptic MPs

Tory former minister Nicky Morgan, who has been urging a Norway-style relationship with the EU, added: ‘If the Government had taken the time to discuss the wording of the motion with MPs on all sides of the Brexit debate they’d have achieved a clear & united signal to the EU as Brady did on 29th January.’ 

EU council president Donald Tusk upped the ante last night by jibing that the bloc had still not heard any ‘realistic’ solutions from the UK. 

Ex-ambassadors warn Theresa May against no-deal Brexit 

A group of retired diplomats have issued a plea to Theresa May to delay Brexit to allow more time to establish a clearer plan or allow for a second referendum. 

In a statement to The Times, more than 40 former ambassadors and Foreign Office mandarins warned that if the Prime Minister secured agreement on her plan, it would not mark the end of uncertainty but the start of years of negotiations. 

They reported ‘exasperation and incomprehension’ among contacts overseas at the UK’s failure to resolve its differences over its future relationship with the EU. 

The statement, organised by supporters of a second referendum, was signed by former ambassadors to the US, France and Russia, as well as one-time head of the Foreign Office Lord Kerr, one of the authors of the Article 50 clause which sets out the process for quitting the EU. 

‘No news is not always good news,’ he tweeted.  

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte also said Britain was a ‘more diminished country compared to two or three years ago’. 

Campaigners for a second referendum have been divided over whether to force a Commons vote on the issue tonight, with many fearing they would lose badly.

But the Commons business paper today included an amendment tabled by senior Tory Sarah Wollaston and backed by Lib Dem and Labour MPs.

It would have forced a series of votes in the House on Brexit options, and then throw the issue over to the wider public in a national vote if politicians could not agree on one course. 

The Labour leadership had stayed tight-lipped over whether it would support the move – the only way it would have any chance of getting through Parliament. 

But in the end the Speaker saved Mr Corbyn’s blushes by ignoring the amendment. 

Instead he chose three changes for debate. The first is a Labour demand for a new meaningful vote to approve the deal is held on or before February 27. 

An SNP amendment called for at least a three month extension to Article 50 to avoid a no deal Brexit on March 29. 

And a tweak tabled by Tory Anna Soubry insists the Government must publish the most recent advice given to Cabinet on the implications of no deal.

The first two changes look doomed to fail as they will not attract Tory support – but the Soubry amendment could well pass.   

The row about tonight’s Commons motion vote appeared to catch Downing Street by surprise. It was intended to produce a show of unity for Mrs May to take back to Brussels.

MPs passed Spelman amendment that rejected no-deal Brexit 

The latest Tory infighting centres on a Remainer-backed amendment that was passed by MPs two weeks ago rejecting the idea of no deal.

The text put forward by former Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman said the UK should not ‘leave the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship’. 

It was narrowly approved by 318 votes to 310 despite the government whipping against.

Although that vote was not binding on ministers, the government motion due to be considered tonight endorses ‘the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January’. 

That was apparently intended as a reference to the Brady amendment, which called for the Irish backstop to be replaced with ‘alternative arrangements’ and was passed with Mrs May’s blessing.  

However, in evidence of the level of distrust within the Tories it has been interpreted by Brexiteers as Mrs May admitting that no deal is off the agenda – despite her repeatedly insisting it is still a possibility. 

But former Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke described the prospect of a Government defeat on what should have been an innocuous vote as ‘a shambles’.

The ERG decision to pick a fight appeared to be motivated by anger over comments from Mrs May’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins in a Brussels bar, in which he suggested Mrs May would rather order a ‘long’ delay to the UK’s departure than leave without a deal next month.

Labour will back an amendment which would force Mrs May to delay Brexit if she cannot get her deal through Parliament.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer confirmed the party would support a revised amendment by Yvette Cooper obliging the Prime Minister to ask for an extension to Article 50 beyond March 29.

It was defeated in the Commons last month, after a number of Labour MPs voted against it.

Meanwhile, a group of retired diplomats have issued a plea to Mrs May to delay Brexit to allow more time to establish a clearer plan or allow for a second referendum. 

In a statement to The Times, more than 40 former ambassadors and Foreign Office mandarins warned that if the Prime Minister secured agreement on her plan, it would not mark the end of uncertainty but the start of years of negotiations. 

They reported ‘exasperation and incomprehension’ among contacts overseas at the UK’s failure to resolve its differences over its future relationship with the EU. 

The statement, organised by supporters of a second referendum, was signed by former ambassadors to the US, France and Russia, as well as one-time head of the Foreign Office Lord Kerr, one of the authors of the Article 50 clause which sets out the process for quitting the EU. 

What are the options for reworking the Irish border backstop? 

The EU has flatly dismissed calls for the Withdrawal Agreement to be reopened.

But Theresa May has promised MPs that she will somehow get legally-binding changes that satisfy concerns about the Irish border backstop.

Here are some possible options for how the PM might seek to get through the impasse.

A unilateral exit clause

Prominent backbenchers including former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has pushed Mrs May to seek a unilateral get-out from the backstop.

The current mechanism can only be deactivated through a joint review system – although the EU insists it is technically ‘temporary’.  

But Brussels has insisted that an ‘insurance policy’ that can be ended by one side is not acceptable.

Expiry date

A hard end date to the backstop would allay the fears of most Tory MPs – as long as it is not too far in the future. 

Boris Johnson has suggested he could vote for the deal if she manages to get a time limit, although he also said it should conclude before the next election in May 2022.

The former foreign secretary also unhelpfully insisted a legal ‘codicil’ – an amendment which would run alongside the Withdrawal Agreement – would not be enough to win him over and he wants the whole thing unpicked.

Again, the EU has insisted it will not agree to a backstop that is time limited. 

The ‘Malthouse Compromise’ 

Tory Remainers and Brexiteers have been working on a proposal to replace the backstop with a looser, Canada-style free trade arrangements. The plan would deploy technology in a bid to avoid a hard border.

But Brussels has already dismissed the technogical solutions as ‘magical thinking’, saying the systems needed do not yet exist.  

Guarantees that the backstop will only be ‘temporary’ 

The EU’s top official, Martin Selmayr floated the idea of ‘unzipping’ the Withdrawal Agreement and inserting new guarantees about the ‘temporary’ nature of the backstop during meetings with MPs.

He suggested the text of recent letters from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker could be cut and pasted in without reopening other terms.

But that would be highly unlikely to satisfy Brexiteers. 

 



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