MPs vote to remove control of Brexit from May government

Three junior ministers resign before defying whip to back amendment tabled by Tory Oliver Letwin

MPs at Westminster have voted to take control of Brexit away from Theresa May's government by staging a series of votes on Wednesday on alternatives including customs union membership and a second referendum.

Three junior ministers resigned on Monday night before defying the government whip to vote for the amendment tabled by Conservative Oliver Letwin, which was passed by 329 votes to 302.

It will suspend the government’s parliamentary business from 2pm on Wednesday to allow MPs to debate and vote on a series of options for Brexit. Sir Oliver acknowledged that no option is likely to win a majority immediately and he suggested that the indicative votes would be the start of a process to find the version of Brexit that commands a majority.

“One of the things we will all have to do is to seek compromise. If we all vote for that which is our first preference, I think we almost know that we will never get to a majority solution,” he said.


Mrs May warned MPs that the amendment could create a dangerous precedent, adding that she could not guarantee that the government would implement any proposal that emerged from indicative votes.

“No government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is. So I cannot commit the government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House. But I do commit to engaging constructively with this process,” she said.

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer also declined to commit to accepting any recommendation that emerged from the process.

He called the Government’s defeat over the Letwin amendment “humiliating”. Following the vote, Sir Keir tweeted: “Another humiliating defeat for a Prime Minister who has lost complete control of her party, her Cabinet and of the Brexit process. “Parliament has fought back - and now has the chance to decide what happens next.”

Earlier, the prime minister told MPs that she did not have enough support to bring her Brexit deal back to the Commons for a third vote. DUP leader Arlene Foster told Mrs May during a phone call on Monday that her party could not support the deal despite the promise of legislation to ensure that the backstop would not lead to regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK without Stormont's approval.

Mrs May angered DUP MPs on Monday when she identified the absence of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland as one of the reasons why Britain could not leave the EU on March 29th. Nigel Dodds accused the prime minister of bringing up "an entirely new argument" when she had failed to prepare properly for a no-deal Brexit.


Mrs May said she would continue to seek support for her deal, warning Brexiteers that a no-deal Brexit would not happen unless Parliament approves it. She said a more likely alternative to her deal was a “slow Brexit” that would delay Britain’s departure from the EU for months.

Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay had urged MPs to vote down the Letwin amendment and related amendments. He said: "It's the prime minister's deal that is the way to deliver what the people voted for in 2016 and 2017.

“That is why it’s right the government maintains control of the order paper in line with constitutional convention and why the amendments this evening should be defeated.”

Maintaining the sense of crisis surrounding events in the Commons, business minister Richard Harrington had quit shortly before the vote to back the cross-party plan. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt also resigned amid the key Brexit votes as did Health minister Steve Brine, a Government source said.

Mrs May earlier told the House of Commons there was still not sufficient support among MPs to pass a third meaningful vote on her Brexit deal.

Speaking on Monday afternoon, she said: “It is with great regret that I have to conclude that as things stand there is still not sufficient support in the House to bring back the deal for a third meaningful vote,” she said. “I continue to have discussions with colleagues across the House to build support so that we can bring the vote forward this week and guarantee Brexit.”

The prime minister said the “default outcome” remained leaving the EU without a deal. “The alternative is to pursue a different form of Brexit or a second referendum,” she said.

“But the bottom line remains: if the House does not approve the withdrawal agreement this week and is not prepared to countenance leaving without a deal, we would have to seek a longer extension.”

That would mean holding European elections and would mean “we will not have been able to guarantee Brexit”.

Mrs May also said the UK government had been looking at “alternative arrangements” to maintain an open Irish border in a no-deal Brexit but that further work was still required.

She pointed out that the European Commission had made it clear in its statement on Monday on preparations for a possible no-deal scenario that "in all circumstances all EU laws would have to be abided by."

The prime minister was responding to a question from former Northern Ireland secretary of state Theresa Villiers who asked in the House of Commons about the remarks of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying that he was confident that some special arrangement could be found to keep an invisible border.

‘Minimal checks’

Mrs May told DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds that the British government would ensure that there would be "minimal checks" at the Border for a temporary period but stressed that Brussels had made it clear that the EU law would be applied in all circumstances.

Mr Dodds had questioned why the contentious "backstop" solution within the proposed EU-UK divorce deal was necessary when Mr Varadkar had made it clear that in the event of a no-deal Brexit he was very confident there would be no checks along the Border.

The Irish Government has said that without the proposed withdrawal agreement avoiding a hard border would be "more challenging" and would require details discussions between Ireland and the EU, and ultimately with the UK.

The EU warned in the no-deal contingency planning note that it would be required “to immediately apply its rules and tariffs at its borders with the UK.”

This would include checks and controls for customs, sanitary and phytosanitary standards covering animals, food of animal origin and plant health, and verification of compliance with EU norms.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, responding to Mrs May's update to the Commons on Monday afternoon, said: "The Government's approach to Brexit has now become a national embarrassment.

“After two years of failure, broken promise after broken promise, the Prime Minister finally accepted the inevitable last week and voted to extend Article 50 and went to Brussels to negotiate.

“Last week’s summit represented another negotiating failure for the Prime Minister - her proposals were rejected and new terms were imposed on her.”

Shortly before Mrs May began addressing the Commons on Monday afternoon, the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: "Time is running out. A disastrous no-deal #Brexit is more likely than ever. It is now up to the UK Parliament to deliver a cross-party majority for a positive future EU-UK relationship. The door of the Europarl_EN remains open to a closer relationship."

‘Increasingly likely’

In a statement earlier on Monday, the European Union said it believes a no-deal Brexit is "increasingly likely".

The news came after the EU gave Britain two more weeks to solve its political stalemate, although there is widespread doubt this will be achieved.

“We are prepared for this scenario,” an EU official said describing contingency preparations.

In its statement, the European Commission said it had completed its preparations for a possible no-deal Brexit, but warned it would nonetheless cause “significant disruption for citizens and businesses”.

If it crashes out without a deal on April 12th, the UK will not benefit from a transition period to new arrangements, but will immediately be subject to checks and tariffs on its exports to the EU, while “significant delays” can be expected at the borders, officials said.

Earlier, a phone call between Mrs May and Ms Foster failed to provide the breakthrough the prime minister needed for her deal. The 10 DUP MPs, who prop up the Conservative government in Westminster, have opposed the withdrawal agreement in the two previous votes on it.

A DUP spokesman said the party’s “position remains unchanged”.

Mrs May was due to meet Mr Corbyn before delivering her oral statement to MPs on the decision reached at last week’s EU summit to extend the Brexit negotiation period beyond March 29th.

MPs debated and later voted on a proposal to force a series of indicative votes on alternatives to Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement.

Successful deal

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he still thinks there will be successful deal on Brexit notwithstanding the pessimism over its likelihood being expressed in Brussels and Westminster.

“I’m still confident we will have a deal. As everyday passes no deal becomes more likely and that is just a statement of the fact,” he said.

“We are intensifying our No Deal preparations. They have been very much underway now for months if not years. They are being intensified at the moment.

Mrs May and senior ministers met leading Brexiteers, including Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, at Chequers on Sunday in an attempt to win support for her Brexit deal.

Earlier, two cabinet ministers rumoured to be ready to replace her as prime minister offered public support to Mrs May, and said there should be no immediate change of leadership.

David Lidington, Mrs May's de facto deputy, and environment secretary Michael Gove both dismissed speculation about a possible caretaker premiership.

“I don’t think that I’ve any wish to take over from the PM who I think is doing a fantastic job. If there’s one thing that working closely with the prime minister does it’s cure you completely of any lingering shred of ambition to do that task,” Mr Lidington said.

Mr Gove and Mr Lidington joined the prime minister at Chequers alongside chief whip Julian Smith, Brexit secretary Steve Barclay, foreign office minister Alistair Burt and Conservative party chairman Brandon Lewis.

Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg were joined by fellow backbenchers Steve Baker, Dominic Raab, David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith and Damian Green. - Additional reporting Reuters and PA

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times