Theresa May suffered a substantial parliamentary defeat on her Brexit plan B on Thursday, further undermining her credibility as she seeks to renegotiate her exit deal with the EU.
The UK prime minister lost by 303 to 258 on a largely symbolic vote that underlined the difficulty of agreeing any Brexit deal that could win the backing of the House of Commons.
“Tonight’s vote shows there is no majority for supporting the prime minister’s course of action on Brexit,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Mrs May was not in the chamber to answer.
In theory, the prime minister has little more than 40 days to reach an exit agreement with the EU, win MPs’ approval and push implementing legislation through parliament — so that Brexit can take place as scheduled on March 29.
But Thursday’s defeat brings into serious question her claim two weeks ago to have found “a substantial and sustainable majority” of MPs in favour of her approach. As such, it will heighten expectations that the Brexit date will be delayed, whether or not Mrs May reaches a deal with the EU.
Her original agreement with the bloc, reached in November, was rejected by the Commons last month by the record-breaking margin of 230 votes.
On Thursday, a total of 67 Conservative MPs did not vote on the government’s motion, while five voted against it.
The rebels came from both wings of the Conservative party — Eurosceptics and Europhiles.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group of Brexiter MPs criticised Mrs May’s parliamentary motion for in effect endorsing a Commons vote last month against a no-deal Brexit.
Many Eurosceptics argue a no-deal option is necessary as a negotiating tactic with Brussels. On Thursday, some also complained that the government was not sufficiently serious about plans to replace the so-called backstop to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The EU says it is not willing to reopen the text of the withdrawal treaty — including the backstop, which Eurosceptics say could “trap” the UK in a customs union with Brussels. However some EU officials have discussed providing Britain with legally binding reassurances that the measure will be temporary.
Adding to the prime minister’s difficulties, Europhile Conservative MPs criticised Brexit secretary Steve Barclay after he told the Commons that the UK could leave the EU without a deal on March 29.
Caroline Spelman, the Conservative MP who spearheaded last month’s successful amendment rejecting a no-deal Brexit, accused the government of being “contemptuous” of the Commons.
Oliver Letwin, a former minister, said Mr Barclay’s statement was “terrifying” and that parliament could soon have to assume “awesome responsibility” and act like “a cabinet” running the country.
MPs voted three times on Thursday. They defeated amendments by the Labour party, which sought to force the government to give MPs a further vote on Mrs May’s strategy on February 27, and by the Scottish National party, which called for steps to revoke Brexit.
Another amendment, proposed by the Conservative Anna Soubry and Labour’s Chuka Umunna, would have ordered the release of the government’s no-deal assessments. But it was withdrawn after the government pledged to release some information.
Mr Barclay tried to assuage Eurosceptic Tories in his speech at the start of the Commons debate on Thursday. “We do need as a parliament to hold our nerve, and we do need to send a clear signal to those in the European Union with whom we’re discussing this deal,” he said.
Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said Mr Barclay was “all over the place on all of the important issues”, and accused Mrs May of “running down the clock, hoping to get to March or even the end of March” before presenting MPs with a choice of her withdrawal agreement or a no-deal Brexit.
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