Theresa May faces a no-confidence vote within hours after her Brexit plan was savagely rejected by MPs, who will now turn their focus to whether she deserves to stay in power.
Mrs May’s minority government relies on the support of the DUP, a Northern Irish party, who has said its 10 MPs would continue to support her, despite their clashes and differences of opinion on her Brexit plan.
High-profile rebels from within her Conservative Party – including former Foreign Secretary and leadership rival Boris Johnson – have declared they too would support the government. To not do so would risk handing the keys to Number 10 to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
That should in theory mean the government wins the confidence vote – but British politics is in such uncharted territory that nothing can be taken for granted.
The scale of the rebellion last night was beyond even the worst-case scenario of many in the government. It was the worst in British parliamentary history and also saw the highest number of government MPs cross the floor, with 118 voting the plan down.
Despite that, an early election is not seen as desirable as many Conservatives fear being punished by voters who are furious that Brexit is now in such disarray and has dominated public life for so long.
After days of debate, the House of Commons crushed Mrs May’s Brexit plan by 432-202. The plan was what she and EU leaders negotiated after many months that set the terms of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU and a transition period between the leave date – scheduled for March 29 – and December 2020.
By that time it was hoped a trade deal would be in place, but if not, a backstop would come into force. It was this aspect MPs found most troubling as they felt it would keep the UK too tied to the EU without the ability to leave when they chose to.
The “backstop” was designed to prevent the reintroduction of border controls between the UK’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. Assurances from EU leaders that the backstop was intended as a temporary measure failed to win over any wavering MPs.
Immediately after the vote, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a no-confidence motion, saying it would give parliament a chance to give its verdict “on the sheer incompetence of this government”.
Mrs May faces difficult days ahead. She could try and steer the country toward an abrupt break without a deal on future relations with the EU, a hard Brexit, or try to nudge it toward a softer departure. Meanwhile, politicians from both government and opposition parties are trying to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government, so they could direct planning for the divorce from the EU.
However, that approach would be unprecedented and require a huge break from conventions.
With no clear majority in parliament for any single alternative, there is a growing chance that Britain may seek to postpone its departure date while politicians work on a new plan – or even hand the decision back to voters in a new referendum on EU membership.
European leaders are now preparing for the worst – even though German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there was still time for further talks. She told reporters in Berlin that “we are now waiting to see what the British prime minister proposes.”
But her measured remarks contrasted with the blunt message from French President Emmanuel Macron, who told Britons to “figure it out yourselves.” He said Britain needed to get realistic about what was possible.
“Good luck to the representatives of the nation who have to implement something that doesn’t exist,” Mr Macron said.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc is stepping up preparations for a chaotic “no-deal” departure after Parliament’s actions left the bloc “fearing more than ever that there is a risk” of a cliff-edge departure. Economists warn that an abrupt break with the EU could batter the British economy and bring chaotic scenes at borders, ports and airports. Business groups expressed alarm at the prospect of a no-deal exit.
Mrs May last night conceded her plan didn’t have the support of parliament and vowed to work with other parties to make Brexit work, something she said was doing what British voters wanted them to do.
“It is clear that the House does not support this deal, but tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support.”
Updates to come.
– With Associated Press