MPs have dramatically rejected crashing out of the European Union without a deal at any time and under any circumstances.
In a surprise move, the Commons voted 312 to 308 – a majority of four – in favour of an amendment tabled by Tory former cabinet minister Dame Caroline Spelman.
Dame Caroline attempted to withdraw the amendment, but it was moved by fellow signatory Yvette Cooper and won the support of a majority of MPs during a string of crunch Brexit votes on Wednesday evening.
The amendment, which is not legally binding, was added to a Government motion tabled by Theresa May which would have rejected no-deal on the scheduled Brexit date of March 29 but left it on the table for other times.
It clears the way for the Prime Minister to bring forward a motion for debate on Thursday on whether Parliament wants her to seek a delay to Brexit by requesting an extension to the two-year Article 50 negotation period.
However no-deal remains the default option unless an extension is agreed with the 27 other EU states, or a deal is passed before the end of the month.
To avoid a walkout by Cabinet ministers who oppose a no-deal Brexit, Mrs May initially gave Tories a free vote on the Government motion.
But this was transformed into a three-line whip to oppose the amended motion.
Opposition MPs blamed strong-arm tactics by Tory whips as Dame Caroline tried to pull her amendment before it came to a vote.
The former Tory chairman told the Commons that Mrs May’s motion offered a greater opportunity than hers for obtaining a “really large majority” against a no-deal Brexit.
But Speaker John Bercow told her it was not possible for her to withdraw the amendment, as one of its other signatories could move it to a vote.
Independent Group MP Anna Soubry told the Commons: “It’s a shameful carry-on when a former chairman of the Conservative Party is whipped against to the extent she will not push that amendment to the vote.”
MPs rejected by 374 votes to 164 an amendment from members of the Malthouse Compromise group of Tories from both Leave and Remain wings of the party.
This called for a “standstill” agreement lasting as late as the end of 2021, during which the UK would observe EU rules and pay into Brussels budgets while a full trade deal is negotiated.
The EU has already rejected the idea, which it views as amounting to a transition period without a formal Withdrawal Agreement.
An extension to Article 50 can only be granted by unanimity among the 27 remaining EU member states, and Brussels has made clear they will do so only if the UK presents a “credible” justification for being given more time.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier told the European Parliament it was the responsibility of London to suggest a way forward.
“What will their choice be, what will be the line they will take?” he asked.
“That is the question we need a clear answer to now. That is the question that has to be answered before a decision on a possible further extension.
“Why would we extend these discussions? The discussion on Article 50 is done and dusted. We have the Withdrawal Agreement. It is there.”
We spared no effort to try and reconcile UK red lines and demands with our duty to protect the EU, the integrity of Internal Market, and the interests of EU citizens.The Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only possible solution.FVP Timmermans on #Brexitpic.twitter.com/efUqzGXMjy
— European Commission 🇪🇺 (@EU_Commission) March 13, 2019
Divisions between the different wings of the Cabinet were on show as MPs considered rejecting a no-deal Brexit.
Chancellor Philip Hammond used his Spring Statement to call on MPs to “put aside our differences and seek a compromise”, warning the UK would face “significant disruption” from a no-deal Brexit.
But Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said he would prefer a no-deal scenario – even though it risks economic harm and threatens to break up the United Kingdom – to the prospect of not leaving the European Union.
Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer said that after the 149-vote defeat of her Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday, Mrs May’s mantra of “my deal or no deal” should be “dead and buried”.
But Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss indicated that she believes the deal could still be brought back a third time to the Commons and secure a majority.
“I think it is still alive, I do,” Ms Truss told BBC Radio 4’s PM.
“Ultimately, when you look at the alternatives – which are a customs union, no Brexit or no-deal – Theresa May’s deal is more attractive than those other three options.
“I think that’s the conclusion MPs will ultimately come to.”