Theresa May's Brexit deal suffers a second defeat in Parliament as MPs reject the Withdrawal Agreement by a majority of 149: Brexit News for Wednesday 13 March

Theresa May's Brexit deal suffers a second defeat in Parliament as MPs reject the Withdrawal Agreement by a majority of 149: Brexit News for Wednesday 13 March
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Theresa May’s Brexit deal suffers a second defeat in Parliament as MPs reject the Withdrawal Agreement by a majority of 149…

MPs are set to vote whether to take no-deal off the table on March 29 after Theresa May’s Brexit deal suffered a second defeat. Parliamentarians rejected the Withdrawal Agreement by 149 votes on Tuesday evening, arguably dashing any remaining hope that the prime minister’s deal will eventually pass through Parliament. In total, 391 MPs voted down the deal and 242 backed it. Acknowledging defeat, Mrs May confirmed that MPs will vote on Wednesday whether the UK should now leave the EU with no-deal. If Parliament declines to approve a no-deal scenario, a vote on extending Article 50 will take place on Thursday. The result comes despite Mrs May having secured “legally-binding” changes to the contentious backstop issue – an apparent EU concession thrashed out during last-ditch talks with Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg on Monday. But ahead of the vote, attorney general Geoffrey Cox warned that in his opinion the changes did not eliminate the legal risk of Britain becoming stuck in the backstop arrangement. Mrs May’s deal was initially rejected in January by MPs 432 votes to 202, the worst defeat for a government in more than a century.

ITV News

  • MPs reject Theresa May’s deal by 149 votes – BBC News
  • Britain in crisis as Theresa May’s deal defeated again – The Times (£)
  • Brexit deal rejected: Future of Brexit in the balance as MPs once again say no to EU deal – Express

> On BrexitCentral:

WATCH: Highlights from the EU Withdrawal Agreement Debate II

MPs reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal again – by a 149 majority. Here’s how every MP voted

…after the Attorney General found May’s Strasbourg deal still risked the UK being trapped in backstop…

Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice deals a significant blow to the Prime Minister’s hopes of securing MPs’ backing for her EU Withdrawal Agreement in the second “meaningful vote” on the deal in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening. 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”. 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 deliver “legally-binding” reassurances for MPs to ensure the Irish backstop cannot be 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. – Belfast Telegraph

…and the Irish Taoiseach said the revised Brexit deal does not undermine the backstop

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, has said the revised Brexit deal does not undermine the backstop nor reopen the withdrawal agreement. The backstop – an insurance policy to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland – will continue to apply “unless and until” it is replaced by future arrangements that ensure no hard border, he said in a statement on Tuesday morning. Addressing the media in Dublin, the taoiseach welcomed the agreement reached between the UK and the EU on Monday night as “positive” and urged the House of Commons to vote for it on Tuesday night to lift the “dark cloud” of Brexit. He echoed Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, in saying that a freshly negotiated legal add-on to the Brexit deal was “complementary” and not a rewrite. “It does not reopen the withdrawal agreement, or undermine the backstop or its application. It says that we will work together, in good faith, in pursuit of a future relationship that ensures that the objectives of the protocol, particularly the need to avoid a hard border, are met.” – Guardian

MPs set to vote against the possibility of a no-deal Brexit tonight…

Theresa May is facing another potentially humiliating Brexit showdown in the Commons, just 24 hours after her latest crushing defeat. MPs will vote on ruling out a no-deal Brexit, after the Prime Minister was forced to concede a free vote for Conservative MPs to avoid ministerial resignations. If MPs vote against no deal, 24 hours later they will vote on extending Article 50, which if carried would mean the UK would not leave the EU on the proposed date of March 29. The PM announced the next rounds in her Commons Brexit battle – with her voice croaking so badly she was barely audible – immediately after her withdrawal deal was defeated by 391 votes to 242, a majority of 149. But there will be no rest for Mrs May’s voice. As well as the usual Wednesday session of Prime Minister’s Questions, she has vowed to open the debate on no deal and take interventions from MPs. – Sky News

…with May herself expected to come out against No Deal as she gives all her MPs and ministers a free vote…

The defeat – the fourth worst suffered by a British government – paves the way for a series of votes this week which are set to block a no-deal Brexit and delay Britain’s exit from the EU. The apparent decision by Mrs May to vote against no-deal follows her repeated insistence over the past two and a half years – and a manifesto pledge – that no deal was better than a bad deal. In Parliament after the defeat, she even appeared to refuse to accept her deal was dead, potentially setting the scene for a third meaningful vote before the end of March. The Prime Minister offered Tory MPs a free vote on the issue of whether to take no-deal off the table, to the fury of Brexiteers, and she is now braced to face growing calls to step aside. However, Downing Street insisted that there had been no discussions about Mrs May resigning. Mrs May told MPs she “profoundly” regretted their decision, which meant the Commons now faced “unenviable choices” of whether to revoke Article 50, hold a second referendum or leave “with a deal but not this deal”. – Telegraph (£)

  • Theresa May to offer free vote on no deal after suffering crushing defeat on her withdrawal agreement – iNews

…and the CBI urges MPs to reject No Deal

Business leaders reacted with frustration to the continued uncertainty caused by MPs rejecting the Brexit deal. The Commons defeated Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement by a majority of 149, with further votes expected this week on whether to back a no-deal Brexit or delay the UK’s departure beyond 29 March. Industry leaders urged the Commons to reject the possibility of a no-deal Brexit this month, but stressed the need to find a way out of the impasse. Confederation of British Industry director general Carolyn Fairbairn called on MPs to “stop this circus” and said people’s jobs depended on a new approach. “Enough is enough. This must be the last day of failed politics,” she said. “A new approach is needed by all parties. Jobs and livelihoods depend on it. Extending Article 50 to close the door on a March no-deal is now urgent. It should be as short as realistically possible and backed by a clear plan. – Independent

Government announces tariffs would be slashed on 87% of imports from outside the EU in no-deal scenario

Britain will slash tariffs on a range of imports from outside the European Union if MPs vote on Wednesday to leave without a deal. But some products coming from the remaining 27 EU member states which are currently imported free of tariffs will now face levies for the first time. Ministers said that, overall, the changes would represent a “modest liberalisation” of the UK’s tariff regime. Under a unilateral temporary scheme announced by the Government, 87% of all imports to the UK by value would be eligible for zero-tariff access – up from 80% at present – while many other goods will be subject to a lower rate than currently applied under EU rules. – ITV News

No-deal Brexit still possible even if MPs vote against it, insist ERG…

Eurosceptic Conservatives have insisted they could still force a no-deal Brexit even if the House of Commons votes on Wednesday against crashing out of the EU without a deal. Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Research Group (ERG), said it was a “serious point” that the risk of a softer Brexit or a second referendum may have increased after the deal’s defeat, but he believed most MPs considered a no-deal exit more likely. He said the European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker “has said there will be no more negotiations so I think our expectations are that we will leave without a deal”. Steve Baker, the former Brexit minister who is the ERG’s chief organiser, announced late on Tuesday that he and others would attempt to force a so-called “managed no deal” in the Commons on Wednesday, when MPs will have a free vote on whether the UK should leave with no agreement. In a late-night amendment signed by the former remainers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green, Baker proposed a 21-month transition to no deal, an idea that the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has explicitly rejected. Baker said he and others would not be “bullied” by the threat of no Brexit or a softer deal. “It is the worst conceivable reason to vote for a terrible deal to say that if we don’t vote for this deal, which betrays the public vote, then parliament will betray the public vote to a worse degree,” he said. “This is a mad argument. I am not going to allow my conduct to be determined by fear.”  – Guardian

…as eurosceptics read the last rites over Theresa May’s Brexit deal

Jacob Rees-Mogg foretold a day of political agony for Theresa May in a single tweet on Tuesday morning. “Dies irae, dies illa,” warned the leader of the Conservatives’ Eurosceptic faction, invoking the old Roman Catholic requiem: “Day of wrath and doom impending.” Mrs May arrived back from her diplomatic mission to Strasbourg in the early hours of Tuesday, daring to hope that the agreement she had struck with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker could be her salvation. After two years of crushing setbacks on Brexit, the British prime minister for once appeared to have momentum: Tory Eurosceptics appeared receptive to the “assurances” she had received in the Alsatian capital on her Brexit deal. The mood in cabinet, according to one minister, was “positive”. MPs discussing perhaps the most important vote in their lives speculated that Mrs May might be about to perform a remarkable political escape act. “The deal is not dead,” enthused one Tory. But the mood was to change abruptly at 11am when Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general published a three-page legal opinion on the assurances secured by Mrs May, forensically exposing their central flaw. Mrs May had hailed “clear and legally binding changes” to the Brexit package — through a binding joint statement and a separate unilateral declaration by the UK.One minister said Mr Cox had made the fatal error of putting the biggest criticism of Mrs May’s deal in the last paragraph of his opinion. Tory Eurosceptics believed the pro-Brexit attorney-general did it on purpose. “He could have soft-soaped it more than he did,” said one leading Tory Brexiter. “He put it in the last paragraph so that stupid people and journalists would easily see it.” As Tory Eurosceptics and members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party seized on the report as proof that Mrs May had achieved little of substance in Strasbourg, her aides desperately urged MPs to read Mr Cox’s full verdict. “We’ve got a selling job to do,” one said. Government ministers despaired that Mr Cox’s equivocal advice about Mrs May’s deal had landed without any warning into such a febrile political environment. “Where was the media management?” asked one. “It was just terrible.” – FT(£)

Brussels exasperated at Theresa May’s Brexit vote defeat…

Brussels has reacted with dismay to last night’s resounding defeat for Theresa May in the Commons and warned the chances of a no-deal Brexit have “significantly increased” as a result… European Council President Donald Tusk said there was no more the EU could do to help end the deadlock. A spokesman for Mr Tusk said: “We regret the outcome of tonight’s vote and are disappointed that the UK government has been unable to ensure a majority for the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by both parties in November. On the EU side we have done all that is possible to reach an agreement. Given the additional assurances provided by the EU in December, January and yesterday, it is difficult to see what more we can do. If there is a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London. The EU for its part continues to stand by the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, which serves to prevent a hard border in Ireland and preserve the integrity of the single market unless and until alternative arrangements can be found. With only 17 days left to 29 March, today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit. – Express

  • EU says it can do nothing more to help Theresa May after her Brexit deal suffers another huge defeat – Telegraph (£)

…as Donald Tusk says the UK must have a credible reason to delay Brexit

Donald Tusk has warned after the second big defeat of Theresa May’s deal that he expects a credible reason for any delay to Brexit. Moments after the prime minister announced that the House of Commons would vote on an extension to the article 50 negotiating period beyond 29 March, the European council president issued an EU red line. “Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 will consider it and decide by unanimity,” a spokesman for Tusk said. “The EU27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions will need to be ensured.” A spokesman for the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, echoed Tusk’s position in a coordinated statement. There is frustration in Brussels at the failure by Downing Street to lay down any groundwork over a potential extension, raising the risk that leaders could reject any request. – Guardian

  • EU leaders warn Britain it will need ‘good reason’ for delay and to prepare for no deal as they’ve done ‘everything possible’ to agree a plan – MailOnline

Jeremy Corbyn calls for general election after May’s Brexit defeat

Jeremy Corbyn has demanded a general election in response to Theresa May’s 149-vote Brexit deal defeat – but made no mention of a second referendum. The Labour leader 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 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. Only three Labour MPs voted with the government, the serial rebels John Mann and Kevin Barron plus former minister Caroline Flint, despite May’s attempt to woo them with promises on workers’ rights and a £1.6bn seven-year regeneration fund. Two independent former Labour MPs, Frank Field and Ian Austin, voted with the government. – Guardian

  • Jeremy Corbyn urges his MPs to block no-deal Brexit in tomorrow’s vote and renews calls for a general election after May’s plan is crushed again – Daily Mail

Senior Tories suggest May is living on borrowed time as one raises the prospect of an election

Ministers and senior Tories were questioning how long Theresa May can survive after a leading Conservative MP asked whether there should be a general election. The cabinet will meet at 8am today to sign off Philip Hammond’s spring statement before a potentially acrimonious discussion on Brexit amid growing pressure for a delegation to tell the prime minister to go. Senior cabinet figures are angry about Mrs May’s tactics and increasingly questioning whether she can be allowed to decide a way forward after last night’s defeat. One cabinet minister was said to be “in despair”. Some ministers said that Mrs May had lost her mandate to govern, while others urged the cabinet to move against her. Some members of the government want no deal, some want indicative votes to allow the Commons to choose the way forward and some are exploring a second referendum. One source claimed that people inside No 10 were discussing Mrs May’s resignation as prime minister but not as party leader, which they claimed would avoid an immediate leadership election. Downing Street denied that she had taken part in any discussions about a resignation yesterday. A select committee chairman broke cover to demand an election. Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said that defeat in the meaningful vote would lead to a general election. He 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. A general election will be bad for the Conservative Party and catastrophic for the Labour Party. It is not what I want to see happen. That is why I am voting for the deal tonight. – The Times (£)

  • General Election panic triggered as Brexit defeat sees Theresa May lose control of EU exit – The Sun

UK economy rebounds in January despite Brexit uncertainty

The British economy staged an unexpected fightback in January as manufacturing and retail sales growth recovered from a weaker end to last year, despite mounting uncertainty over Brexit. The Office for National Statistics said monthly GDP growth jumped to 0.5% in January, the biggest rise since December 2016, reversing a drop of 0.4% in the final month of last year. City economists had forecast a monthly growth rate of 0.2%, although several analysts said the unexpected shot in the arm in January – arriving just before the chancellor’s spring statement on Wednesday – would probably lead to stronger growth over the first quarter. John Hawksworth, the chief economist of PwC, said: “There are no signs yet that uncertainty over Brexit has pushed the economy as a whole into recession. If an orderly Brexit can be achieved, then the economy should pick up speed again in the second half of this year.” The main drivers of the UK economy – services, production, manufacturing and construction – all made a positive contributions to monthly growth, after a weaker end to 2018 when every single major sector recorded declines. – Guardian

Andrea Jenkyns: This deeply flawed deal only served to show how we have caved in to the EU from day one

So that was that. Following weeks of negotiations after Parliament rejected the Prime Minister’s draft Withdrawal Agreement back in January, the Government brought its deal back to the House – only to lose once again. It’s fairly obvious why. In the hours following the release of the revised agreement, it was pored over by numerous legal experts, including the ERG’s legal team (the “Star Chamber”), the Attorney General, the DUP’s experts and others, including Lord Anderson. A clear picture emerged. The new deal only limited the risks posed by the backstop, and did not remove them entirely. We would have had the right to seek an “arbitration” in the event that we wanted to leave the backstop and the EU was stopping us. This was problematic. It was not the unilateral exit mechanism that we asked for. We should never have to ask permission to act as a sovereign country. I could not support this deal, even after the Prime Minister’s tweaks. When MPs voted for the Brady Amendment, which specifically outlined that Parliament wanted the backstop replaced, I do not think they had what the PM came back with from Strasbourg in mind. Ultimately, it was clear to me that the deal would have served as the blueprint for our future relationship with the EU. From day one, Britain has conceded far more to the EU than it has to us. It is time the EU showed some willingness to compromise, just as we have done. Otherwise, I am afraid that not just this deal but any other deal will be doomed to failure. – Andrea Jenkyns MP for the Telegraph (£)

Michael Fabricant: Why I took the tough decision to vote down the PM’s Brexit deal

Tuesday began well for the Government. The Prime Minister had lost her voice. “If you think mine’s croaky, you should hear Juncker’s” she quipped at a hastily-called 1922 Committee in the morning. Yet she seemed to have returned from Brussels with a spring in her step – and an improved Draft Withdrawal Agreement. Then came the legal opinion from our Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. Non-lawyers, including MPs and journalists, immediately turned to the final page and executive summary. The last 12 words spelt disaster for the Government: “… no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement”. In other words, the United Kingdom still cannot leave the Northern Ireland backstop unilaterally. This was the crucial issue which drove many of us to resist the deal back in January, when the Government lost by 230 votes. When questioned in front of the House of Commons later in the morning, however, Cox defended the Government’s position admirably. He made the point on everyone’s minds, that this is not just a legal matter, but a political one. And it is also a question of trust. – Michael Fabricant MP for the Telegraph (£)

Mark Harper: To fix the backstop, Theresa May should push on with the Malthouse Compromise

As we arrive at what was meant to be another ‘crunch’ day of voting in the House of Commons, one constant throughout this process is the notion that the Cabinet’s Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration is a ‘deal’. With apologies to Noel Edmonds, this is why many think we are fast approaching the point of ‘deal’ or ‘no deal’. In all this debate, there has not been much, if any, focus on the fact that it isn’t really a deal at all. What do I mean? There are two things that have been negotiated: a Withdrawal Agreement dealing with money, citizens’ rights as well as a transition period along with a second part, the Political Declaration, which is what our future relationship is going to be – covering trade and our economic relationship as well as our security arrangements. This second part is what most people mean by a ‘deal’. One idea for a backstop that would be acceptable would be a Free Trade Agreement that uses existing practices and sensible cooperation with the EU to avoid a hard border. This would avoid the problems with the proposed backstop but would guarantee the current situation where there is no infrastructure on the border itself. A detailed plan to achieve this has been set out by my Conservative colleagues in the ‘Malthouse Compromise’. Since this plan is supported by Conservative MPs who took different positions during the referendum campaign, I would urge the Prime Minister to take it forward with enthusiasm. This opportunity, available now, would allow us to address the backstop and set an acceptable base for our future relationship immediately. This would provide welcome certainty for businesses and allow Parliament to start focusing on some of the other important issues facing our country, not just Brexit. – Mark Harper MP for the Telegraph (£)

Zac Goldsmith: I switched to voting for this flawed deal because it is now the only route available to leave the EU

When I spoke in Parliament in December, I explained why I would be voting against the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement. I said “we cannot possibly know why each of the 17.4 million or so people voted for Brexit, but we can be confident that few of them did so in the hope that we would end up with a deal like the one we are debating today.” Just like the Withdrawal Agreement itself which has returned to Parliament, my views have not changed. I still believe it to be flawed and risky, and to say I am disappointed that this is what the Prime Minister has produced after two years of discussions is a gigantic understatement. It reflects a failure on the part of Government, and Parliament. And it betrays a contempt for all those who voted in the referendum – some of them for the first time in their lives – to leave the EU. But what has changed is the context, and the same deal I have previously voted against began to look like the only mechanism available to us to leave the EU. The fact is, both Parliament and Government are dominated by people who have never reconciled themselves to the outcome of the referendum. For a while they talked the talk and repeated the mantra that it had to be honoured. But their actions have always pointed in the other direction. And as the months have gone by, they have been emboldened to such an extent that many of them have simply dropped the pretence altogether. – Zac Goldsmith MP for ConservativeHome

Asa Bennett: By voting down the deal again, Brexiteers have left Brexit at the mercy of Remainers and the EU

Some Brexiteer MPs who voted against Theresa May’s deal the first time she presented it to Parliament in January have voted for it tonight, but not in enough numbers to see it through the House of Commons. Yet again, we have seen Brexiteers walk through the voting lobbies with fervent Remainers against the deal. The debate on the legal robustness of the extra changes Mrs May secured in Strasbourg on Monday has been important, but, as I’ve argued before, is a sideshow compared to what has been at stake politically. Jacob Rees-Mogg recognised that himself. The European Research Group chair told BBC News that the key question he and his Eurosceptic colleagues have had to answer today is “political”: “Does this deliver enough of Brexit to be worth accepting against the risk Michael Gove has highlighted of not leaving?” Later on Sky News, he argued that the “only reason for voting for the deal” was the fear that rejecting it would mean Brexit might not happen. Such a fear, he said, was a “phantom” leading him to conclude that “it is safe to vote against her deal tonight”. Many Eurosceptics, such as Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Fabricant and Ross Thomson, have concluded that and voted against it again. But others like David Davis, Ben Bradley and Greg Hands have indicated they are begrudgingly voting for the deal to prevent worse outcomes such as Brexit being delayed or diluted even further. Rejection now paves the way for two more votes this week, as Mrs May confirmed tonight. The first will happen tomorrow on whether to pursue a no deal, an idea that the Prime Minister has ensured will be swiftly rejected by indicating it will be a free vote, leaving it to the Commons’ inherent Brexit scepticism to finish off the idea. – Asa Bennett for the Telegraph (£)

Julie Burchill: Brexit has shown up the Establishment as a bunch of small-minded, mediocre bullies

No matter what happens next with Brexit, I’ll always be grateful that I was alive during the past three years – ever since David Cameron announced on February 20, 2016 the date of the EU referendum. This is probably the last truly momentous event in the long and fascinating history of my country that I’ll experience, and it’s been a pleasure and privilege to witness my countrymen coming nearer to becoming actual revolutionaries than anyone ever dreamed they could be. The vote for Brexit being a revolutionary act, of course the Establishment would fight it tooth and nail, not least in devising the “deal” that Theresa May has spent the past few months flogging. But since the morning of June 24, 2016, I’ve been an incorrigible Pollyanna and believed that some essential decency would make the nest-feathering pen-pushers, who have tried so hard to keep us as good little easily-managed euro-portions, give way to the voice of the people in the end. Even now, at high noon, a part of me believes that an everyday miracle could happen, and that with one bound we could be free at last, despite the increasingly deranged and desperate measures taken by the Project Fear mob to maintain the status quo. Julie Burchill for the Telegraph (£)

Philip Collins: Despite Brexit vote defeat, Theresa May has little option other than battle to the bitter end

And still the end is not nigh. The logic of the sorry fiasco of Brexit has always dictated that movement would occur only at the bitter end. Last night it was bitter but it was not the end. Mrs May’s deal went down by 149 votes and, with less than seventeen days to go before the scheduled departure date, the end is yet to come. After defeat, Mrs May’s options are narrowing to vanishing point. She might conceivably conclude that her party is full of intolerable fools. It would be a reasonable enough conclusion. Though her voice was lost, and every mock-literary scribe declared it to be a metaphor, the prime minister is likely to battle on. It is not really likely, despite fevered speculation on the issue, that there will be a general election. Not many people, up to and including much of the electorate, really wants that and it is not clear how or why an election will settle anything anyway. That leaves two viable options. The nuclear option is to call in Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, the Labour MPs who have tabled a clever amendment which would give Mrs May’s deal passage through Parliament in return for a confirmatory referendum. – Philip Collins for The Times (£)

James Forsyth: Why we could be heading for a third vote on May’s Brexit deal

Late last night, there was a sense of optimism among ministers that the government’s revised deal might have a chance. But those hopes were crushed this morning by Geoffrey Cox’s blunt legal advice. With Cox declaring that the legal risk was unchanged, the DUP were never going to back the deal and that meant the bulk of the ERG wouldn’t either. In the end, the withdrawal agreement went down by 149 votes—at the worst end of expectations. May immediately declared that there would be a vote on no deal tomorrow, and it would be a free vote. May’s justification for this was the referendum precedent, but for the governing party to have no position on the most important issue to come before the Commons in years is remarkable. No deal will almost certainly be voted down tomorrow. The Commons will then on Thursday likely vote for the government to request an extension to Article 50. Cabinet ministers suspect that even after the size of this defeat there might be another meaningful vote on this deal. Their logic is that the ERG will surely see that an extension will only lead to, at the least, a softer Brexit. But the sixty-odd Tory Brexiteers who voted against May’s deal seem remarkably unconcerned about what will follow the rejection of May’s deal. – James Forsyth for The Spectator

Nikki Da Costa: Unless the Government presents a clear plan quickly, MPs will attempt to wrest control

With the Prime Minister’s deal defeated twice by historic margins, and a free vote on no deal on Wednesday, it is difficult to see a way forward in which the Government retains power, with the ability to provide any direction to the Brexit process. The Prime Minister has already conceded that it will be a free vote on no deal – essentially Conservative MPs and Ministers may vote as they please – and potentially that approach will need to extend to votes on any amendments, as well as an extension of the Article 50 process. Theresa May will then dutifully negotiate with the EU, and inevitably put whatever the EU has proposed, price-tag and all, back to the Commons. MPs will then need to decide whether they can agree both to length of extension proposed and any conditions that go with it. The numbers for this are as yet unknown but they will be tested tonight.  Unless the Government comes forward with a clear plan, and a firm stance which it can defend, it is likely that MPs will attempt to wrest control. A firm stance however requires the government to risk losing support of one cohort or another, and therefore a willingness to confront the potential for a general election, and the scars of 2017. I do not see signs that the Prime Minister is yet willing to go there, even with her advocacy for the deal. As a consequence, what will happen is anyone’s guess. I merely attempt here to set out some of the paths we may end up walking. – Nikki Da Costa for the Telegraph (£)

The Times: Theresa May – On The Brink

To lose one meaningful vote on your government’s central policy by the largest margin in parliamentary history could be considered a misfortune. To be defeated overwhelmingly a second time on the same policy in the space of eight weeks is not just careless. Under any normal circumstances it would be a resigning issue. Only 16 days before Britain is due to leave the European Union, Theresa May’s strategy for delivering an orderly departure lies in tatters. The Brexit deal that she spent the past two years negotiating was defeated by a majority of 149, including 75 of her own backbenchers. Yet the prime minister made clear last night that she intended to carry on fighting for her deal. The question remains what cards she has left to play. One thing is certain: she cannot hope to do what she has done twice before. In December, when it became clear that her deal was doomed to a crushing defeat, she pulled the vote and vowed to go back to Brussels to seek further concessions over the Irish backstop. This was despite her having previously told parliament that her deal was “the best that could possibly be negotiated” and the only one to which the EU would agree. Sure enough, she came back with nothing more than a letter from the presidents Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker expressing the EU’s commitment to use its “best endeavours” to negotiate a new trade deal that would avoid the backstop being used. This was not enough to convince even the attorney-general that Britain could avoid being permanently trapped in the backstop. Mrs May’s attempt at brinkmanship has failed. Without trust and authority it is hard to see what she has to offer, having been trounced twice. The Conservative Party may now decide that only a new leader can find a path to an adequate Brexit. – The Times (£) editorial

The Sun: This Parliament of pygmies has sold the British people down the river by voting down Theresa May’s deal

Theresa May’s new Brexit defeat represents a catastrophic failure by a Parliament of pygmies. They handed the British people the right to determine if we left the EU, solemnly pledged to see the result through and made it law. They have twice now rejected the only available deal and calamitously let the nation down. Many have sold their election promises and constituents down the river. Three years since the referendum and just 16 days before our scheduled exit, no one even knows if Brexit will happen. This great country is in the grip of chaos which is terrifying families and crippling businesses. Our politicians should hang their heads in shame. Mrs May’s deal isn’t great. But it would have got Brexit done, as a weary population desperately wants. It would have killed off a hideously divisive new referendum and more paralysing uncertainty. So many MPs have been inept, dishonest or both. Very few escape blame. For all her admirable resilience Mrs May has made fundamental errors. Not least on Monday when she secured changes from the EU then oversold them on live TV, only to have her own Attorney General knock them down. Given his advice was so pivotal, why was he not in the loop throughout? Or yesterday, so terrified of Cabinet Remainers quitting that she allowed her party a free vote today to rule out No Deal — our final bargaining chip. – The Sun says

John Rentoul: The sheer scale of May’s latest defeat makes a Brexit delay almost inevitable

The House of Commons has not broken its habit of voting against things, then. But, rather late in the day, the range of options facing MPs is narrowing. The scale of the defeat makes it hard for the prime minister to try to get her deal through a third time. She persuaded only 41 MPs to change their vote from the even bigger defeat in January, but she still needs 75 more MPs to change sides to get her deal through. That means parliament is heading towards asking the EU to delay Brexit, which is, in effect, another way of not deciding, as the prime minister said rather pointedly after the vote. She promised that there would be a vote tomorrow on whether to leave the EU without a deal. She doesn’t want that, but she is quite safe in holding that vote, as that is another option the Commons will vote against. She confirmed that she will allow her MPs a free vote, but didn’t say how she would vote. I imagine she will abstain, knowing that a no-deal Brexit will be defeated by a huge margin. Fewer than 100 of the 600 MPs in the Commons support it. More importantly, she repeated her promise of a vote on Thursday on whether to seek an extension to the Article 50 timetable. Before the Commons votes to delay Brexit, however, there may be final attempts either to secure support for a different deal. May might be tempted to accept a customs union in desperation if it were the only way out, but I cannot see how Jeremy Corbyn would ever support a Conservative prime minister, even if it meant supporting his own policy. There is not enough support, and no time anyway, for other options such as a general election or a new prime minister. The only way to avoid delaying Brexit would be for the Commons to pass another version of the prime minister’s deal on a third, or possibly even a fourth attempt. – John Rentoul for the Independent

Katy Balls: Brexit This defeat might be when Theresa May loses control of Brexit, but no one know what happens next

The news that Theresa May’s deal was defeated by nearly 150 votes came as little surprise to anyone in government. Despite optimism early on in the day that a majority of MPs could be won around, the Attorney General’s legal opinion went unchanged – leaving No. 10 aides to believe they were once again on course to a heavy defeat. The atmosphere in the Chamber when the vote was announced was not one of frustration but inevitability. The problem is no one – not even those in Downing Street – know what this defeat means. This is the week aides believe May will lose control of Brexit, but what it then becomes is anyone’s guess. In the statement immediately after the vote, May attempted to get on the front foot – confirming that MPs would get the votes she had previously promised on trying to rule out no deal, and then potentially trying to delay Brexit. The Wednesday vote on on no deal will be a free vote – thereby giving up any pretence that this is a government in control. The hope in No. 10 is that May can salvage a third meaningful vote on her Brexit deal. If the Commons votes to extend Article 50 and the terms of that extension are undesirable, MPs may begin to look at her deal in a new light. The small ray of light for May is that a number of influential Brexiteers changed their mind and voted for her deal at the last minute. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis was among them. Other leading Brexiteers, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, voted against but he did say this could change if Brexit looked in peril. This means May’s deal passing in future cannot be ruled out. There is an expectation, however, that MPs pushing for a softer Brexit will move to stop such a plan in its tracks – and instead take control of proceedings. Remain-leaning politicians from across the parties will now try to team up and put down an amendment to force the government’s hand – and try to get to a point where they can instruct May to negotiate a softer Brexit. Were they to succeed, all bets are off. There are May allies who believe such a situation, in which the Prime Minister was merely a puppet in the negotiations, is worse than nearly any other scenario. – Katy Balls for iNews

Robert Peston: We’re now heading for a no-deal Brexit – but not just yet

A member of the Cabinet uttered just one word to me about this latest humiliating defeat for the Prime Minister about her Brexit deal: “nightmare!”. Let’s put this nightmare into context. In January, the Prime Minister’s painstakingly negotiated Brexit plan was rejected by a record 230 votes, the worst defeat for a government ever. Tonight’s defeat by 149 votes is also huge by all measures. And let’s be clear, these are not defeats about rules and regulations for ice cream vans. They relate to the most important economic, security and foreign policy decision this country has taken for many decades. This is therefore without precedent in modern times as a diplomatic and political failure for a Prime Minister. It is all the more extraordinary that this rejection of her deal leaves all of us in the soupiest fog about the what, the how and even the whether of Brexit, just 17 days before we are supposed to be leaving. How on earth can any of us run our lives, businesses, finances given these uncertainties? Madness, surely? Where next? Although MPs will vote against an imminent no-deal Brexit, they cannot cancel the risk of leaving without a deal completely – because that decision is actually the EU’s, not ours, unless as a nation we choose to revoke for all time our choice to leave the European Union. So, to bore on again, my central projection remains a no-deal Brexit at the end of May or in June – largely because EU governments are sick to the back teeth of not knowing what kind of Brexit or no-Brexit the UK actually wants. – Robert Peston for The Spectator

Brexit in Brief

  • The EU is flunking its Brexit opportunity – Helen Thompson for Unherd
  • Tory Brexit crisis is even worse than it looks –  Daniel Finkelstein for the The Times (£)
  • Will the ERG become the villains of Brexit? Will Britain never leave the EU now? – Laura O’Callaghan for the Express
  • If you don’t like the backstop and you want a Brexit deal done quickly, there’s only one answer: Common Market 2.0 – Robert Halfon MP for ConservativeHome
  • Nicola Sturgeon told she ‘is not bright enough’ to understand May deal – The Times (£)