Theresa May and her ministers are in the hands of the DUP today after one of the most dramatic parliamentary defeats of a government in House of Commons history.
After asking MPs to endorse her Brexit deal, the prime pinister last night suffered a defeat which was so devastating in scale and of such historic significance that it immediately led to the tabling of a Labour vote of no confidence in her government.
Mrs May’s proposal – central to which was the Northern Ireland backstop which infuriated the DUP and many other unionists – was voted down by a majority of 230.
The prime minister’s highly unusual decision to pull the vote in early December because of the scale of opposition to her proposed withdrawal agreement failed to bring it even within touching distance of victory.
She reacted immediately to the announcement in the Commons chamber by effectively challenging Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to table a vote of no confidence in her government, something which within moments he did.
The DUP moved within minutes to make clear that it will back Mrs May in today’s vote – even though the strain in relations was visible in the Commons chamber last night as DUP MPs muttered and shook their heads as Mrs May spoke about what the backstop would mean for Northern Ireland.
In the wake of the defeat, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said that Mrs May “can’t carry on with this deal because she knows she won’t get it through the House of Commons” and urged her to return to Brussels to renegotiate the deal.
But, making clear the DUP’s support for Mrs May to continue in Downing Street, he told the BBC: “We want to see the Conservative government delivering on Brexit – we never wanted a change of government; we wanted a change of policy.”
Arlene Foster said that “Parliament has acted in the best interests of the entire United Kingdom”. Looking ahead, the DUP leader warned: “Reassurances, whether in the form of letters or warm words, will not be enough.”
The DUP leader added: “The prime minister must now go back to the European Union and seek fundamental change to the Withdrawal Agreement.”
The DUP’s clarification that it will vote for Mrs May in today’s confidence vote was quickly followed by a similar message from the European Research Group of Brexiteer Tory MPs, meaning that it will be a huge shock if Jeremy Corbyn’s motion is successful.
There was no consensus last night among commentators as to the likely way forward for the Brexit process.
Some experienced Westminster politicians were predicting that the government would offer Labour a customs union to get its support, while others said a no deal was now more likely than ever.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald urged Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to “stand firm” over the backstop after MPs voted down the proposed withdrawal deal.
Lady Hermon, the North Down independent MP who was the only Northern Ireland representative to back the deal, seemed stunned by the scale of the landslide against the government last evening.
Speaking to the News Letter in central lobby just after the vote, she said: “It was a very significant defeat. It was not anticipated last night that it would even be in three figures.”
The former Ulster Unionist said that she was the only Northern Ireland MP in favour because “Sinn Fein don’t take their seats”.
Lady Hermon added: “We are fortunate that we have a prime minister of this stamina and determination.”
Lord Empey, the former Ulster Unionist leader who is now an active member of the House of Lords, said: “It was an astonishing result. It is the biggest defeat of a government in a century.”
He said it was now up to the Cabinet to determine a way forward.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that politicians in Westminster “must wake up to the reality” that there can be no Brexit deal without a backstop.
Alliance leader Naomi Long called for a second EU referendum, as did Green Party leader Clare Bailey.
TUV leader Jim Allister said that he was “delighted that Mrs May’s treacherous deal got its just deserts in the House of Commons. It deserved no better” and said there should be “no more rollover” to Brussels.
Business leaders reacted with disappointment. Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said the result will concern the Northern Ireland business community who “desperately need certainty about the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU”.
John McGrane, director general of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, said: “We await the UK government’s Plan B and hope that it will offer a way forward.”
Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: “The Brexit referendum split the UK almost exactly down the middle – 52-48. Whatever happens, this division will last at least a generation.”