Brexit: May’s latest defeat could boost support for second referendum

Commons rejects withdrawal agreement, as DUP hints support for no Brexit to save union

UK prime minister Theresa May and attorney general Geoffrey Cox at the Brexit debate in the House of Commons. Photograph: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA Wire

Friday's vote on the withdrawal agreement was the narrowest defeat Theresa May's Brexit deal has suffered in the House of Commons, but the margin of 58 leaves the prime minister with a formidable challenge.

After the vote, Downing Street declined to rule out bringing the deal back for another vote before an emergency EU summit on April 10th.

Relations with speaker John Bercow have improved in recent days following negotiations with attorney general Geoffrey Cox ahead of Friday's vote and the government is more confident that another meaningful vote will be allowed.

Before that, MPs will engage in another round of indicative voting next Monday, when supporters of various alternatives to May’s deal are expected to coalesce behind a number of composite motions.


This could see some supporters of a customs union joining forces with some of those calling for a second referendum, and those backing single market and customs union membership will seek similar alliances. One proposal under consideration is to hold a run-off vote, perhaps next Wednesday, between May’s deal and the option that receives most support in indicative votes.

The government will not commit to accepting any option MPs choose and May would find it difficult to go to Brussels seeking customs union membership, which she has argued strongly against since the referendum. For her own deal to win a majority, she will need to persuade more Conservative Brexiteers and more Labour MPs to back it. And it will be hard to find that majority without the support of the DUP's 10 MPs.

The alliance between the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers has broken down after Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab voted for the withdrawal agreement, which includes the Northern Ireland backstop. In the case of Johnson and Raab, their ambition to lead the Conservative party meant more to them than their promise to defend the "precious union" alongside the DUP.

The DUP has always kept its options open and it has been consulting with the backbenchers who are leading the indicative votes process. On Wednesday, the party voted against six options but abstained on the two that called for the softest Brexit and deputy leader Nigel Dodds spelled out on Friday exactly where their priorities lie.

"I would stay in the European Union and remain rather than risk Northern Ireland's position. That's how strongly I feel about the union," he told BBC's Newsnight.