MPs vote overwhelmingly to reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal
Move significantly increases risk of damaging ‘no-deal’ divorce, says Donald Tusk’s spokesman
MPs have overwhelmingly rejected the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons.
A vote on her latest proposals agreed in Strasbourg on Monday night were resoundingly rejected in a vote after 7pm on Tuesday.
The deal was rejected by 391 votes to 242. That was less than the record 230-vote margin she suffered in January, but still a resounding repudiation of two years of painstaking work. With the deal all but dead, Parliament will probably vote to postpone Brexit this week, and lawmakers - including some of May’s own Cabinet - will likely try to maneuver to force the government to rip up its Brexit plans and start again.
Mrs May said afterwards she was still passionate about delivering on the result of the Brexit referendum and wanted to do so in an orderly way.
She that the choices facing the UK were “unenviable”, but because of the rejection of her deal, “they are choices that must be faced”.
She added that she “profoundly regrets the decision this House has taken tonight”.
“I continue to believe that by far the best outcome is the UK leaves the European Union in orderly fashion with a deal. “And that the deal we have negotiated is the best and indeed only deal available.”
The House of Commons’ second rejection of the EU-UK Brexit deal has “significantly increased” the risk of a damaging “no-deal” divorce, a spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk said.
“We regret the outcome of tonight’s vote,” the spokesman said. “On the EU side, we have done all that is possible to reach an agreement ... it is difficult to see what more we can do.”
“With only 17 days left to 29th March, today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit ... Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 will consider it and decide by unanimity.”
In a Tweet EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that “The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. The impasse can only be solved in the the #UK. Our “no-deal” preparations are now more important than ever before.”
Irish Government figures were incredulous at Mrs May’s failure to secure the support of her Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, whose refusal to change his legal advice that the UK could be trapped in the backstop indefinitely effectively killed the withdrawal agreement and its associated documents in the House of Commons.
Senior sources in Dublin and Brussels dismissed out of hand the prospect of further changes to the agreement or concessions to the British Government to assist a third attempt to pass the deal, and there was a sense in Dublin at least that people were giving up on Mrs May.
A short extension of article 50 was mooted by officials in both capitals, though this must be applied for by the British and agreed unanimously by the heads of the EU 27 governments at next week’s summit in Brussels - a meeting that will once again be dominated by Brexit.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he was “deeply disappointed” with the result in the House of Commons vote.
Mr Coveney, in line with a message coming from most EU capitals, said the onus was now on London to find a way out of the current crisis.
“We have worked really hard in the last number of days, but not just in the last number of days but in the last number of months with our EU partners to try to offer the flexibilities and the assurances and the clarification that the British government were looking for in order to get this deal ratified,” he said.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin called it a “serious and disappointing setback”.
“My hope is that before the end of this week, British politicians will realise how high the stakes are for millions of ordinary working people and start putting the national interest ahead of Brexit politics,” he said.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said: “The scenes tonight show the absolute disregard for the people of Ireland, for our rights, our economy and the Good Friday Agreement that is at the heart of the Tory Brexit agenda.
“Sinn Féin and the majority of parties across this island, know there is no good or sensible Brexit. The Withdrawal Agreement is imperfect but it is the only deal on offer.”
Now that Mrs May’s deal has been rejected, MPs will be given the opportunity on Wednesday to vote on whether to leave without a deal and on Thursday on whether seek a delay to Brexit.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn demanded a general election in response to the Brexit deal defeat - but made no mention of a second referendum. He also pledged that his party would vote against a no-deal Brexit outcome in Wednesday’s vote and signalled that he would continue to press for a customs union with the EU.
“The prime minister has run down the clock and the clock has been run out on her,” he said in the House of Commons. “It’s time that we have a general election and the people can choose who their government should be.”
But despite Mr Corbyn’s call for another poll, the party is understood to not have immediate plans to call for a vote of no confidence that could precipitate what would be the third general election in four years. The opposition will initially focus on opposing no deal - which is expected to be defeated on Wednesday - and believes that an extension to the 29 March deadline is inevitable because more time is needed to negotiate an alternative.
The rejection in the House of Commons was expected after leading Tory Eurosceptics and the DUP said earlier they would vote against her agreement.
The DUP had said in a statement that the British prime minister had not achieved sufficient progress in her Brexit negotiations “at this time” but that it was still possible to reach a deal with further talks.
The so-called “Star Chamber” of lawyers convened by the Leave-backing European Research Group found that agreements reached by Mrs May in 11th-hour talks in Strasbourg do not deliver the legally-binding changes the Commons has demanded.
Their judgment came after Mr Cox told MPs that the changes “reduce the risk” that the UK could be trapped indefinitely in the backstop, but do not remove it altogether.
Mr Cox said that “the legal risk remains unchanged” of the UK being unable to leave the backstop without EU agreement.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Cox had confirmed that “no significant changes” had been secured in two months of negotiations and the Government’s strategy was “in tatters”.
Speaking in the House of Commons earlier on Tuesday, Mrs May defended her plan as a good deal compared to a series of unattractive alternatives. “If this vote is not passed tonight, if this deal is not passed, then Brexit could be lost,” a hoarse-voiced Mrs May said.
Mrs May said seeking an extension to the Brexit negotiating period would hand control of the process to the EU.
“It would not change the debate or the questions that need to be settled - it would merely pass control to the European Union,” Mrs May told parliament of a possible extension. “They would decide how long an extension to offer, meaning we may not get what we ask for, they could even impose conditions on an extension. That could mean moving to a Brexit that does not meet the expectations of those who voted to leave or even moving to a second referendum.”
Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, had warned that defeat in the second “meaningful vote” on the withdrawal agreement on Tuesday evening would lead to a general election.
Mrs May’s deal was rejected by 230 votes in a Commons ballot in January.
Mr Walker told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “If it doesn’t go through tonight, as sure as night follows day, there will be a general election within a matter of days or weeks.
“It is not sustainable, the current situation in parliament.”
Mr Cox’s advice was issued the morning after Mrs May’s dash to Strasbourg to finalise a deal with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker which she said would reassure MPs that the backstop arrangements to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit would not become permanent.
The pair agreed a “joint instrument” setting out the legally-binding nature of their promises to seek alternative arrangements to avoid the need for a backstop, as well as a “supplement” to November’s political declaration making clear that they will seek swiftly to seal a deal on their new trade and security relationship.
Alongside these documents was a “unilateral declaration by the UK” which sets out “sovereign action” by which Britain could seek to have the backstop removed if the EU acted in bad faith.
On a day of high drama in Westminster, the cabinet gave its backing to the package at its weekly meeting chaired by the prime minister at 10 Downing Street.
Mrs May said passing the vote would allow the country to move on to a brighter future, while the alternative was uncertainty with no guarantee of what would happen next.
Before heading to the Commons to address Tory MPs and make a statement to the House, she concluded the meeting by saying: “Today is the day. Let’s get this done.”
But momentum seemed to be shifting against the prime minister, as Mr Cox released his advice.
He said that the documents agreed in Strasbourg “reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained” in the backstop if the EU fails to show good faith in negotiating a trade deal to replace it.
But he warned that the question of whether a satisfactory agreement on a future UK/EU relationship can be reached remains “a political judgment”.
And he said “the legal risk remains unchanged” that if no such agreement can be reached due to “intractable differences”, the UK would have “no internationally lawful means” of leaving the backstop without EU agreement.
In a statement to the Commons, Mr Cox told MPs: “There is no ultimate unilateral right out of this arrangement. The risk of that continues.
“But the question is whether it is a likelihood, politically.”
Moments later, the Star Chamber issued its opinion: “Yesterday’s documents considered individually and collectively do not deliver ‘legally binding changes’ to the WA or to the (backstop) Protocol.
“They fail to fulfil the commitment made by government to the House in response to the Brady amendment ‘to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement’.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday morning the agreement reached between the UK and the EU on Monday night is “positive” and “does not undermine the backstop”.
Speaking in Government buildings, Mr Varadkar said the outcome was “positive”.
“I hope and trust that the withdrawal agreement will now be endorsed by the House of Commons”, Mr Varadkar told reporters at an 8am press conference in Government Buildings.
‘No third chance’
At a late-night joint press conference with Mr Juncker on Monday, Mrs May said she “passionately believed” that three new documents provided the legal assurances critics of her stance had called for.
“Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and to deliver on the instruction of the British people,” she said.
Mr Juncker warned that if MPs voted down the deal a second time, “there will be no third chance”. And he said that any extension of the two-year article 50 negotiation process could not go beyond May 23rd unless the UK took part in European Parliament elections beginning that day.– Agencies