The Prime Minister has one week to make a third attempt to get her deal through Parliament or be forced to ask for a long delay to Brexit that could keep the UK in the EU for up to two years.
More than a dozen ministers, including Scottish Secretary David Mundell, broke a three-line whip to abstain on last night’s vote ruling out a no deal as Mrs May lost control of Parliament and her Cabinet.
MPs will vote this evening on a motion instructing the Prime Minister to ask the EU for an extension to Article 50, delaying Brexit.
Downing Street admitted that even if Mrs May’s deal is passed, there is no longer time to get essential Brexit legislation through the Commons, meaning a short extension cannot be avoided.
Last night Conservative Brexiteers were reported to be considering supporting the deal if the Prime Minister offered to resign.
But with no guarantee of success in a third “meaningful vote”, the EU is unlikely to grant a short Brexit delay and may press for a much longer extension until the end of 2020.
Speaking moments after her second significant Brexit defeat in as many days, Mrs May accepted there was a
“clear majority” against no-deal in the Commons.
But she insisted that despite the vote, which is not legally binding, no-deal remains the default option in UK and EU law unless a withdrawal agreement is reached. Confirming that MPs will vote today on whether to ask her to request an extension of the Article 50 negotiation process, Mrs May said that they were facing a “fundamental choice”.
“If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short, limited technical extension to Article 50 to provide time to pass the necessary legislation and ratify the agreement we have reached with the EU,” the Prime Minister said.
But if MPs would not back a deal, there would have to be “a much longer extension”, requiring the UK to take part in European Parliament elections in May, she said.
“I do not think that would be the right outcome,” the Prime Minister said. “But the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told MPs Mrs May had repeatedly offered a choice between her deal and no-deal, adding: “In the last 24 hours, Parliament has decisively rejected both.”
Mr Corbyn said: “Parliament must now take control of the situation. Myself, the shadow Brexit secretary and others will have meetings with members across the House to find a compromise solution that can command support in the House.”
The SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford said the only option was a second EU referendum.
“The UK government has descended into total chaos,” Mr Blackford said. “Theresa May has lost control. That means it’s time to put the decision on our EU membership back to the people.”
A chaotic day in the Commons saw the government forced to whip MPs against a motion put down in the Prime Minister’s name.
That motion had made clear a no-deal Brexit could only be ruled out by agreeing a deal. Conservative MP Dame Caroline Spelman laid the amendment removing that condition, but faced intense lobbying from Remain-supporting MPs and ministers who feared potential embarrassment for the government and further party division.
However, when she tried to withdraw her amendment during debate, Ms Spelman was told by Commons Speaker John Bercow that because it had already been selected, any MP who had signed it could push it forward.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper insisted on a vote, which passed by 312 to 308 – a margin of just four. The amended motion was then carried by 321 votes to 278.
Government discipline evaporated, with 17 Conservatives, including East Renfrewshire MP Paul Masterton, voting to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
Junior health minister Sarah Newton resigned after voting for the motion. Another 12 government ministers, including Mr Mundell, and three other Cabinet secretaries – Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke – also broke the three-line whip to abstain.
Sources close to Mr Mundell made clear he would not quit over his vote.
He later said: “I’ve always opposed a no-deal Brexit.
“The House made its view clear by agreeing the Spelman amendment [and] I didn’t think it was right for me to oppose that.”
A Downing Street spokesman said voting against the government on a three-line whip “is a resigning matter”.
However, it was reported last night that ministers had been told it was OK to abstain.