MPs will on Wednesday to hold a second EU referendum or stop the Brexit process entirely, undermining Theresa May’s authority and posing the most serious threat to government unity since the 2016 referendum.
After a previous bid to force ‘indicative votes’ fell by two votes, the government’s defeat was emphatic, losing by 302 to 329.
The decision puts the Prime Minister on a collision course with parliament after Mrs May said she would not automatically respect the result of any votes on alternative Brexit plans.
Her comments prompted anger from opposition figures, who accused her of trying to “ignore parliamentary sovereignty”.
The SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford told Mrs May in the Commons: “If our votes do not count, then frankly we may as well just go home.”
The Prime Minister was forced to admit she did not have the support to get her Brexit deal through the Commons, shelving plans for a third attempt to bring it before MPs this evening.
Business Minister Richard Harrington quit to support indicative votes, accusing the government of “playing Russian roulette” with the economy by failing to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt - who only on Sunday joined the Prime Minister at Chequers in a bid to convince Brexiteers to vote for her deal - was also set to lose his job after voting for the amendment from Tory MP Oliver Letwin.
Pro-EU ministers had been called to Downing Street before last night’s votes amid fears of another major rebellion and resignations from the government.
The Scottish Secretary David Mundell, who was among a dozen ministers to keep their jobs after breaking a three-line whip to abstain on a vote to delay Brexit, confirmed beforehand that he would vote with the government.
Mrs May faced her cabinet on Monday morning amid growing speculation about her own future. Ministers did not ask Mrs May to stand down, despite growing calls from Brexiteers for the Prime Minsiter to commit to stand before the next stage of negotiations, in exchange for their votes on the deal.
Under the terms of an agreement to extend Article 50 signed off at an EU summit last week, the government now has until Friday to pass its Brexit deal, or risk losing an offer of two extra months to pass vital legislation and crashing out on 12 April.
There are fears the process of indicative votes could be inconclusive. In 2003, parliament held a series of votes on seven different proposals for House of Lords reform, with every option being voted down.
Updating MPs on last week’s summit that secured the offer of a Brexit delay, Mrs May warned that the government would not be bound by the results if they went against manifesto commitments to leave the EU customs union and single market.
Announcing that Conservative MPs would be whipped to vote against the proposal, she said it was an “unwelcome precedent to set, which would overturn the balance of our democratic institutions”.
“When we have tried this kind of thing in the past, it has produced contradictory outcomes or no outcome at all,” she said.
“There is a further risk when it comes to Brexit, as the UK is only one half of the equation and the votes could lead to an outcome that is unnegotiable with the EU.
“No government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is. So I cannot commit the government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this house.”
The Prime Minister warned MPs that they face a “slow Brexit” if they did not accept her Brexit deal and continued to rule out a no deal scenario, with a longer extension to Article 50 keeping the UK in the EU beyond European elections in May.
Responding to her statement, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told Mrs May it was “ridiculous to suggest that Parliament taking control is ‘overturning democratic institutions’.”
And Mr Blackford accused the Prime Minister of treating parliament like a “puppet show”.
“What is the point of us all sitting in this Chamber and voting in debates when the Prime Minister thinks she can ignore parliamentary sovereignty?” he asked.
“What a disgrace—what an insult to this place, because if our votes do not count, then frankly we may as well just go home.”
Earlier, Mrs May spoke by telephone with the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, in last-minute bid to secure her support ahead of deciding whether to hold a third meaningful vote on Tuesday but was unsuccessful.
She also met for an hour with Mr Corbyn in her Commons office. The two leaders had a “frank and comprehensive exchange of views”, a Labour spokesman said.
Mrs May suggested the Withdrawal Agreement setting out the UK’s exit terms from the EU could be “separated” from the Political Declaration, which provides a blueprint for future trade talks, but this was rejected, the Labour spokesman added.
The Prime Minister told MPs there was “still not sufficient support in the House” to ensure victory.
The government could still bring its deal before the Commons later this week, after the indicative votes, in the hope that Brexiteers finally come on board to prevent Brexit being cancelled completely.
“I continue to believe that the right path forward is for the United Kingdom to leave the EU as soon as possible with a deal, now on 22 May,” Mrs May told MPs.
“But it is with great regret that I have had to conclude that as things stand, there is still not sufficient support in the House to bring back the deal for a third Meaningful Vote.
“I continue to have discussions with colleagues across the House to build support, so that we can bring the vote forward this week, and guarantee Brexit.”