The Prime Minister will be forced to ask Brussels for a long extension to Article 50 if Parliament fails to reach a consensus on a Brexit plan in the next fortnight.
Despite huge pressure on Conservative Brexiteers and a desperate campaign to win over Labour MPs representing Leave-voting areas, the Commons rejected Mrs May’s deal again by a 58-vote margin on Friday afternoon.
EU Council president Donald Tusk immediately announced an emergency Brussels summit on 10 April, where the Prime Minister may have to accept a delay of as long as nine months.
However, Mrs May insisted she would continue to try get her deal through Parliament despite a third large defeat in as many months. Government sources have raised the possibility of a run-off between the withdrawal agreement and an alternative option put forward next week by backbench and opposition MPs.
Ministers split the withdrawal agreement, setting out the UK’s Brexit divorce terms, from the political declaration, which sets the course for future trade talks, in the hope that Labour MPs representing Leave-voting areas would back it.
But only five voted for the deal, compared to 34 Conservative MPs who voted against. The number of Tory rebels was fewer than half the 75 who opposed the deal in the previous vote on 12 March, but enough to overturn the result had they voted the other way. A No.10 source said they were “at least going in the right direction”.
To jeers from some of their colleagues, leading Brexiteers, including Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab, went through the ‘Aye’ lobby with the government. Mrs May’s one-time allies in the DUP also maintained their firm opposition to the deal, with the party’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds saying last night that he would prefer to “stay in the European Union and remain rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position”. “That’s how strongly I feel about the Union,” he said.
Speaking immediately after the 344 to 286 vote result was announced, the Prime Minister said it “should be a matter of profound regret to every member of this House that once again we have been unable to support leaving the European Union in an orderly fashion”. She warned the implications of the third defeat for the government’s Brexit deal were “grave” and, in a signal that a general election could be looming, added: “I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House.”
Mrs May told MPs: “The legal default now is that the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on 12 April – in just 14 days’ time.
“This is not enough time to agree, legislate for and ratify a deal, and yet the House has been clear it will not permit leaving without a deal.
“And so we will have to agree an alternative way forward.”
With MPs set to push ahead with votes on alternative Brexit plans on Monday, the Prime Minister reminded the Commons that any form of Brexit “will require the withdrawal agreement”.
If no clear path emerges in the next two weeks, Mrs May said a long extension “is also almost certain to involve the UK being required to hold European Parliamentary elections”. “This House has rejected no-deal, it has rejected no Brexit,” she said.
“On Wednesday it rejected all the variations of the deal on the table.
“And today it has rejected approving the withdrawal agreement alone and continuing a process on the future.
“This government will continue to press the case for the orderly Brexit that the result of the referendum demands.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for an immediate general election – a demand that was backed by the SNP’s Ian Blackford.
Mr Blackford said the government “need to seriously consider the option of revocation” of Article 50, stopping Brexit entirely.
Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the European Research Group of Tory Eurosceptics, called on Mrs May to step down immediately.
The vote played out against the backdrop of pro-Brexit protests outside Parliament on the day the UK was originally intended to leave, with crowds addressed by Nigel Farage, Ukip leader Gerard Batten and far-right figure Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known as Tommy Robinson.
Crowds marched into Parliament Square led by a flute and drum band from Livingston, chanted ‘Corbyn out, May out, Brexit now’. Mr Batten told supporters: “We need now to behead the political class, politically at the ballot box.”