In a fresh shattering blow to the Prime Minister’s plans, MPs voted by a massive margin of 149 votes to reject the revamped Withdrawal Agreement she hammered out with top Eurocrat Jean-Claude Juncker less than 24 hours earlier. Remainer MPs will now try to seize control of the next steps of Brexit on Wednesday when the Commons is given a vote on blocking a no-deal departure. Theresa May has always insisted leaving without an agreement in place was a better option than quitting with a bad deal.
But after a second crushing defeat on her EU divorce settlement, she will allow her divided party a free vote on overturning the legal default that Britain will quit without exit terms in place if talks have broken down.
Remainers from across the parties are likely to vote down a no-deal Brexit.
That will lead to a second vote on Thursday on asking Brussels to agree an extension to the Article 50 process that takes Britain out of the bloc on March 29.
Mrs May’s latest rebuff means the Brexit date set for March 29 is almost certain to be postponed, raising doubts about whether the country will ever be unshackled from Brussels.
She admitted the vote leaves the Commons facing “unenviable choices”. She conceded the possibility of Remain-backing MPs triggering a second referendum in an attempt to overturn the 2016 national decision to leave the European bloc was growing.
MPs, who have effectively seized control of the Brexit process, are now expected to vote to rule out a no-deal Brexit before a further vote on extending the EU’s Article 50 departure process.
Theresa May is facing a Brexit crisis after another heavy defeat
Mrs May, her voice croaky after days of punishing last-ditch negotiations, challenged MPs to come up with a solution to the national crisis.
“Let me be clear – voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems we face,” she said.
“The EU will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension.
“This House will have to answer that question. Does it wish to revoke Article 50? Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal but not this deal?
These are unenviable choices, but thanks to the decision the House has made this evening they must now be faced.”
Admitting she “profoundly” regretted the Commons decision, the Prime Minister refused to drop her deal that has now been twice rejected by overwhelming votes.
“I profoundly regret the decision that this House has taken tonight.
A packed House of Commons for tonight’s crucial Brexit vote
“I continue to believe that by far the best outcome is that the UK leaves the EU in an orderly fashion with a deal, and that the deal we have negotiated is the best and indeed the only deal available,” she said.
And she hinted that the Government could bring the deal back before the Commons for a third attempt.
“I am passionate about delivering the result of the referendum. But I equally passionately believe that the best way to do that is to leave in an orderly way with a deal and I still believe there is a majority in the House for that course of action.”
Seventy-five Tories including leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg rebelled to vote against Mrs May’s deal. Many made up their minds when Attorney General Geoffrey Cox published his advice to the Government confirming that fresh legal guarantees won by the Prime Minister this week did not rule out the danger of the UK being trapped in the EU’s customs union as a result of the “backstop” border measure.
Up to 40 former Tory rebels including former EU Exit Secretary David Davis switched to support the deal following fears that rejection could put Brexit in peril.
Though the margin of defeat was significantly less than an earlier Commons vote in January, it was still too big to give ministers much hope of winning a third attempt.
Ahead of the vote, Mrs May struggled through a speech imploring MPs to back her deal with her voice cracking.
Theresa May leaving Westminster following her heavy Brexit defeat this evening
Aides said she was suffering from a throat infection. She sucked on lozenges while making her appeal to the Commons. Her husband Philip May watched her latest defiant speech from a Commons gallery.
When opposition MPs heckled her for struggling to make herself heard, the Prime Minister shot back: “You may say that, but you should hear Jean-Claude Juncker’s voice as a result of our conversation.”
She went on to warn MPs that rejecting her deal could lead to Brexit being postponed or even cancelled.
“We cannot serve our country by overturning a democratic decision of the British people, we cannot serve by prolonging a debate the British people now wish to see settled, and we cannot serve by refusing to compromise—by reinforcing instead of healing the painful divisions we see within our society and across our country.
“The British people have been clear – they want us to implement the decision that they made nearly three years ago,” the Prime Minister said.
During a five-hour debate, a string of Tory Brexiteers claimed the legal changes did not go far enough to protect the UK from being indefinitely trapped in the backstop.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson condemned the changes as a cover created to hid the shortcomings of the Prime Minister’s deal.
“The result is like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – they have sowed an apron of fig leaves that does nothing to conceal the embarrassment and indignity of the UK,” he said.
Mr Johnson claimed the deal had “reached the end of the road” and called for the country to quit the EU without a deal.
“I accept that that is in the short term the more difficult road, but in the end it’s the only safe route out of the abyss and the only safe path to self respect,” he said.
Tory backbencher Richard Drax said: “Many in this country do not trust the EU, and I am sad to say that many in this country do not trust many MPs in this place to deliver what the vote told this country to do.
“Surely the only option now is to get a clean break, leave on 29 March and get our country back.”
Senior Tory Sir William Cash, chairman of the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, said: “We will not truly leave the European Union unless we regain control of our own laws.”
Earlier, Mrs May’s working day had begun with the weekly Cabinet meeting endorsing the changes to the deal.
Mrs May told the meeting that passing the vote would allow the country to move on to a brighter future rather than face more uncertainty.
She told them: “Today is the day. Let’s get this done.”
But any hopes of victory in the vote began to fade soon when the Attorney General’s advice was published.
A “star chamber” panel of Eurosceptic lawyers set up by the Tory European Research Group urged MPs to reject the deal.
And the Democratic Unionist Party – which props up Mrs May’s minority administration in the Commons – said its 10 MPs would vote against the latest deal as “sufficient progress has not been achieved at this time”.