Last night Downing Street insisted it would push ahead with its plans despite the humiliating defeat. A quarter of Conservative MPs either abstained or voted against the government, from both sides of the Brexit divide, putting the ability to get any deal through the Commons in doubt.
Responding to the result, Nicola Sturgeon said: “The Brexit farce gets even more farcical.”
The result sets up what is likely to be a decisive Commons clash at the end of the month, when the government has promised another set of votes that will see MPs seek to delay Brexit and avoid the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.
Members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) said they could not support the motion, claiming it amounted to an endorsement of efforts to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
A Downing Street spokesman claimed Labour’s votes against the motion made a no-deal Brexit “more likely”, but insisted it was still possible to secure changes to the Irish border backstop that could win the support of a majority of MPs.
“While we didn’t secure the support of the Commons this evening, the Prime Minister continues to believe, and the debate itself indicated, that far from objecting to securing changes to the backstop that will allow us to leave with a deal, there was a concern from some Conservative colleagues about taking no deal off the table at this stage,” the spokesman said.
“The motion on 29 January remains the only one the House of Commons has passed expressing what it does want – and that is legally binding changes to address concerns about the backstop.
“The government will continue to pursue this with the EU to ensure we leave on time on 29th March.”
The wording of the motion called on MPs to reiterate their support for the approach set out in an earlier set of votes at the end of January, which saw the Commons support the government in reopening negotiations with Brussels on the backstop. However, MPs also voted for a non-binding cross-party amendment rejecting a no-deal break with the EU.
The Prime Minister did not take part in the debate and was not present to hear the result of the division.
Following the vote, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May needed to accept her strategy had failed and come forward with a plan that could bring people together to prevent the “catastrophe” of no deal.
“The government cannot keep on ignoring parliament and ploughing on towards 29 March without a coherent plan,” he said.
“She cannot keep on just running down the clock and hoping that something will turn up that will save her day and save her face.”
Scottish secretary David Mundell said the vote was “disappointing, but not significant in [the] long term”. He suggested it would allow the government to bring its deal back for a second ‘meaningful vote’ before the end of this month, when the “only option for those who don’t want no deal” would be to back the Prime Minister.
Pro-EU Conservative MP Anna Soubry said the Prime Minister had been “dealt yet another body blow”.
“What is happening is a profound lack of leadership from the very top of government,” Ms Soubry said. “This lack of leadership means there is no guidance on this, there is no grasping of the reality of the situation we are in.” She said it was “chilling” that ministers were still keeping no deal on the table when they had seen economic analysis showing that it would be “absolutely disastrous” for the country.
Leading Tory Eurosceptic Sir Bernard Jenkin described the outcome of the votes as a “fiasco that the government’s clumsiness created”.
Mr Jenkin said: “I don’t know why the government doesn’t consult a bit more widely before they table these motions. There are 110 eurosceptic Tory MPs who helped defeat the withdrawal agreement. Not one of us was consulted.”
Defence minister Tobias Ellwood said the ERG were behaving as “a party within a party”. Mr Ellwood said: “They caused this tonight and they are acting as a party within a party and that is frustrating.
“There is a deal to be decided, there is still work to be done and yet tonight we see the ERG halting the government, not supporting the Conservative Party. That is not necessary and it’s also provocative.”
Earlier, an SNP amendment to the government’s motion calling for Brexit to be delayed by at least three months was defeated by 93 votes to 315.
Labour MPs were whipped to abstain, but 41 broke ranks to support the amendment, including Scottish MPs Ged Killen, Ian Murray and Martin Whitfield.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford claimed “Tory and Labour MPs have joined together to vote against Scotland’s interests”.
“With just 43 days to go until the UK crashes out of the EU, it is utterly shameful that they have put party before country by voting down SNP proposals to extend Article 50 and prevent a disastrous no-deal Brexit,” Mr Blackford said.
A Labour source said the party would extend Article 50 to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but was aiming to do so through legislation as proposed by backbencher Yvette Cooper.