Theresa May has suffered a mass Tory revolt by her ministers and MPs as she caved to pressure to delay Brexit by three months.
Amid shambolic scenes in Parliament, the prime minister’s tattered authority took a fresh blow when more than half her party opposed her government move to postpone exit day from March 29 to June 30.
Some seven Cabinet ministers, including her Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay, voted against May’s motion, which was aimed at giving her extra time to get her EU-UK divorce deal passed and put on the statute book.
Earlier, she had seen off a dramatic attempt by parliament to seize control of the Brexit process.
MPs voted by 314 to 312 to reject a cross-party bid to force a series of ‘indicative votes’ on alternatives to the prime minister’s EU divorce deal, including a softer exit and a second referendum.
But Brexit is still set to be delayed by three months to June 30, to give the government time to win support for May’s plans and to pass sufficient legislation.
A further motion endorsing the three month delay was endorsed by a big majority of 412 votes to 202.
Yet in a further sign of the fractious nature of the Tory party, 188 of its MPs voted against the proposed extension to the two-year Article 50 period that governs UK membership of the bloc.
As the government had allowed a free vote, no ministers will be sacked, but many MPs witnessed unprecedented scenes as government whips failed to turn up to oversee the proceedings.
Several whips voted against the motion, as did Liam Fox, Gavin Williamson, Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom, Steve Barclay, Penny Mordaunt and Chris Grayling.
May has promised the Commons more than 100 times that the country would leave as planned at the end of this month.
The PM’s spokesman said: “The prime minister absolutely wanted and strived for the UK to leave the EU on March 29. Everything she has done since she entered office was intended to deliver that.
“She did not want there to be an extension, she brought forward a meaningful vote twice having agreed the deal with the EU in November. Parliament chose to reject that deal so we now have to confront the difficult position.
“It’s very clear that Cabinet is working hard and is united around allowing the UK to leave with a deal.”
The motion passed by MPs stated: “the Government will seek to agree with the European Union a one-off extension...for a period ending on 30 June 2019 for the purpose of passing the necessary EU exit legislation”.
Downing Street sources suggested that the UK could possibly leave earlier than the end of June if it managed to complete the required exit legislation beforehand. But it is far from clear that Brussels would agree.
If May’s deal fails to win backing next week, a longer extension would be sought from the EU.
The motion to delay Brexit was forced on May by an alliance of MPs last month, as she scrambled to avoid her hands being tied by Parliament in the wake of a crushing defeat of her deal.
A European Commission spokesperson said: “We take note of tonight’s vote. A request for an extension of Article 50 requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 member states.”
The ‘plan b’ votes could yet go ahead, but only after the PM is given a final chance to win round the Commons behind her deal early next week.
Fresh moves began on Thursday to woo Tory Brexiteers and her DUP partners who have twice inflicted crushing defeats on the PM’s proposals.
The defeat of the amendment by Labour’s Hilary Benn offered some brief respite to her battered premiership following days of bitter division within the Tory party.
In an olive branch, May’s de facto deputy David Lidington offered to give MPs more of a say, pledging that parliament could get two weeks of extra debate on the alternatives if the PM’s deal failed a third time ahead of the next EU summit next week.
In a hastily convened emergency cabinet meeting, one Whitehall source said that May “read the riot act” to those ministers who had defied a three-line whip on Wednesday on a Commons motion to permanently rule out a no-deal exit.
Earlier, Lidington warned MPs that if May’s withdrawal agreement is rejected for a third time – following two crushing defeats by 230 votes and 149 votes – any pause in the process would have to involve the UK taking part in European parliament elections in May.
Benn, the chairman of the Brexit Select Committee, said that he was not personally backing one option or another but simply seeking to “book a slot” next Wednesday to allow MPs to take control of the process themselves.
European Council president Donald Tusk signalled on Thursday morning that the EU may be ready to offer a lengthy extension to negotiations if the UK wants to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.
Chancellor Philip Hammond again made clear he would back an alternative to the PM’s own plans, telling Sky News: “It is clear the House of Commons has to find a consensus around something, and if it is not the Prime Minister’s deal, I think it will be something that is much less to the taste of those of the hard Brexit wing of my party.
“I would be delighted if a consensus emerges behind the Prime Minister’s deal over the next day or two. But I think we also have to explore other options for parliament to express a view about how we resolve this impasse.”