Theresa May’s Brexit suffers historic defeatBy George Parker and Laura Hughes in London and Michael Peel in Brussels | January 16, 2019
Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the product of two years of tortuous negotiations in Brussels, was on Tuesday night overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202.
Mrs May’s crushing loss by 230 votes, the biggest defeat inflicted on any government, sees the prime minister in a race against time to revamp and resuscitate her deal before Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU on March 29.
Some 118 out of 317 Conservative MPs voted against the deal and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, immediately tabled a vote of no confidence in the government. He said the defeat of the deal had been “absolutely decisive”.
Mrs May is expected to win the confidence vote, to be held on Wednesday evening, because neither the Conservatives nor the Democratic Unionists, the Northern Irish party that supports the prime minister in big votes, wants a general election.
A DUP spokesman said the party would back Mrs May in Wednesday’s vote, while an official with the European Research Group, the faction of hardline pro-Brexit Tory MPs, said they would “of course” back the prime minister. Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister, said: “We’re Conservatives — we’re going to support the Conservative government.”
Eurosceptic Tory MPs believe Mrs May’s failure in parliament makes it more likely Britain will leave the EU without any formal deal with Brussels, allowing a “clean break”. Greg Clark, business secretary, has warned that crashing out of the union without an agreement would be “a disaster”.
"It is clear the House does not support this deal. But the vote tells us nothing at all about what it does support" Theresa May
The CBI, the UK’s main business lobby group, called on the government to reveal a new plan immediately. Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general, said: “Every business will feel no deal is hurtling closer . . . All MPs need to reflect on the need for compromise and to act at speed to protect the UK’s economy.”
Sterling weakened in Asia trading on Wednesday following the historic defeat for Mrs May’s Brexit plan. The British currency weakened by as much as 0.28 per cent to $1.2825, erasing some of the gains from Tuesday after sterling sharply rebounded from a low of $1.2672.
Mrs May has until Monday to say how she intends to proceed and announced immediate talks with senior MPs from all parties to try to identify “genuinely negotiable” changes to the deal that could win the backing of the Commons.
But the sheer scale of the defeat suggests Mrs May’s deal needs a thorough overhaul if it is to be revived. “It is clear the House does not support this deal,” she told MPs. “But the vote tells us nothing at all about what it does support.”
Mrs May faces an uphill battle when she returns to Brussels, however. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said: “The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the UK has increased with this evening’s vote . . . time is almost up.”
France’s President Emmanuel Macron said that Britain would be the biggest loser from a no-deal exit, adding that “one or two points” could be improved in the deal.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is resisting calling a special summit of EU leaders without clarity on what realistic changes could secure a Commons majority. He wrote on Twitter: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no-deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”
The British prime minister, who watched stony-faced as her flagship policy was demolished, refused to quit, declaring she would deliver on the public vote to leave the EU: “It’s my duty to deliver on their instruction and I intend to do so.”
She also insisted the government was not “running down the clock” until March 29 to put pressure on MPs to change their minds, although there is a growing expectation in Brussels and Westminster that she will be forced to delay Brexit.
Mr Macron suggested that further UK-EU talks could lead to an extension of the formal Article 50 exit process. “They will take more time, maybe they will get past the European elections to try to find something else,” the president said on Tuesday night.
Philip Hammond, chancellor, cautiously opened the possibility of delaying Brexit during a conference call with business leaders after the vote. Asked if Article 50 could be extended, he said the EU would only consider it if the government had a clear plan — and that would require reaching out to MPs first.
Following the failed vote, the EU was preparing to discuss further assurances over the backstop plan, which forces Britain into a “temporary” customs union to avoid a hard border across the island of Ireland if no EU-UK trade agreement is reached.
However, diplomats doubt whether even legal assurances, including potentially putting an aspirational time limit on the backstop, would make serious inroads into the ranks of the Tory rebels.
Some EU figures see the big margin of defeat as suggesting a cross-party consensus will be needed, built around a softer version of Brexit. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, said he would welcome moves by MPs to seek “a deepened relationship with the EU”.
With radical surgery likely to be needed, the prime minister is under pressure from cabinet ministers to test a number of different Brexit options in a series of indicative votes in the Commons.
Mrs May opposes the move, but senior cabinet figures and MPs are mobilising in support of various options, including a second referendum, a Norway-style economic partnership or a permanent customs union. Downing Street appeared to dismiss the customs union option, saying Britain needed “an independent trade policy”.
Meanwhile pro-European MPs are mobilising to force the government to rule out any Brexit until a withdrawal treaty is in place, in an attempt to isolate Eurosceptic MPs who believe a no-deal exit could be managed.
Mrs May pleaded with MPs to support her deal at the end of a five-day Commons debate, saying it was “the most significant vote any of us will have been part of in our political careers” and that it would define Britain “for decades to come”.
Additional reporting by Alex Barker in Brussels and David Keohane in Grand Bourgtheroulde
© The Financial Times Limited 2019. All Rights Reserved.
Not to be redistributed, copied or modified in any way.