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, including all 10 DUP MPs voting against, despite the prime minister’s assurance that 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.
European Commission president Mr Juncker had already warned that if MPs turned down the package agreed in Strasbourg on Monday, there would be “no third chance” to renegotiate.
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 that she will grant Conservative MPs a free vote on a motion stating that “this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework on the future relationship on March 29 2019 and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement”.
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.
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.”
Struggling with a croaky voice, Mrs May said that she still believed that leaving with a deal was the best option for Britain and that “the deal we’ve negotiated is the best and indeed the only deal available.”
She added: “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.”
An extension requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 remaining member states, and Mr Juncker has warned that it cannot stretch beyond May 23 unless the UK takes part in the European Parliament elections starting on that date.
Following the vote, a spokesman for European Council president Donald Tusk said: “On the EU side we have done all that is possible to reach an agreement. Given the additional assurances provided by the EU in December, January and yesterday, it is difficult to see what more we can do. If there is a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London.”
The spokesman said that the EU stood by the Withdrawal Agreement reached in November.
But he added: “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.
“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. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions will need to be ensured.”
Cabinet gave 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” that 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 that three new documents agreed in Strasbourg failed to deliver the legally-binding changes demanded by the Commons.
And 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 that “Brexit could be lost” if they gave her deal the thumbs-down again.
But she met a wall of hostility from her own party as well as the opposition parties, with 75 Conservative MPs voting against along with 238 Labour, 35 SNP, 11 Liberal Democrats, 10 DUP, four Plaid Cymru, 17 Independents and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said that “no significant changes” had been secured in two months of negotiations and the Government’s strategy was “in tatters”.
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.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Commons: “After three months of running down the clock the Prime Minister has, despite very extensive delays, achieved not a single change to the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Not one single word has changed. In terms of the substance, literally, nothing has changed.”
Charles Walker, vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, warned that defeat in the second “meaningful vote” on Tuesday evening would lead to a general election.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “If it doesn’t go through tonight, as sure as night follows day, there will be a general election within a matter of days or weeks.
“It is not sustainable, the current situation in Parliament.”