Theresa May has emerged victorious from her latest Brexit battle after MPs rejected a Labour backbencher’s bid for parliament to take control of the process.
An amendment to the prime minister’s plan B by Yvette Cooper was defeated by 321 to 298 after Tory hardliners and the DUP united with 14 Labour rebels.
The move would have cleared the parliamentary timetable for MPs to thrash out an alternative Brexit strategy and could have forced May to extend Article 50 to fend off the threat of no-deal.
But, despite heightened speculation and some high-profile Tories backing Cooper’s plan, it was squashed by a majority of 23.
In a separate development, there was a glimmer of hope for remainers as a majority of MPs voted for an amendment calling for May to refuse a no-deal exit.
The PM can choose to ignore the amendment, tabled by Tory MP Caroline Spelman, however, as it is not legally binding.
May will now make a last-ditch attempt to save her Brexit plan as she confirmed for the first time that she will ask Brussels to reopen the withdrawal agreement.
The PM’s last hope is that the controversial Northern Irish backstop, so bitterly opposed by the DUP and Tory Brexiteers, can be renegotiated before Brexit day on March 29.
The 14 Labour MPs who voted against Cooper’s amendment
Calling on parliament to reject Cooper’s plan, May asked MPs to “send an emphatic message” to Brussels about the deal the UK wanted.
“Today we have the chance to show the EU what it will take to get a deal through this House of Commons, what it will take to move beyond the confusion and division and uncertainty that now hangs over us, and onto the bright, new, close, open relationship we want to build and can build with our European friends in the years ahead,” May told the Commons.
But after the key victory for the government in parliament on Tuesday night, remain-minded MPs were left fearing the UK was exposed to the threat of no-deal – the legal default should May fail to secure a Brexit deal parliament can support.
Appealing for MPs to back her amendment, Cooper had said it offered a “safety net” against no-deal.
She added: “Now I’ve always believed that the prime minister would not let this happen, I always believed that she would flinch when it came to the crunch, that she is not the sort of person who would want to make other people suffer because of her delays and mistakes.
The 17 Tory MPs who voted for Cooper’s amendment
“But my worry is that when I look into her eyes now, I am worried that that has changed because she is trapped. Because every time the Prime Minister has had the chance to pull back and to reach out, she’s done the opposite.”
It came as hardline Brexiteers in the ERG faction of Tory MPs confirmed its MPs would join the DUP in offering May a “last chance” to secure a deal.
They were set to throw their weight behind a government-backed amendment by Conservative backbencher Sir Graham Brady that says the Commons will support a deal if “alternative arrangements” to the backstop were found.
Ministers think MPs underlining their position will strengthen May’s hand in talks with EU leaders.
Confirming he would vote with the government, Tory former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said Cooper’s amendment would have led to “understandable fears that actually it is a ruse to reverse or frustrate Brexit”.
He added: “I want to, for my part, strengthen the hand of this Prime Minister and this Government in returning to Brussels and I believe that there are a range of changes that would render the Withdrawal Agreement and in particular the backstop acceptable to myself, but also more generally across this House.
“That could be in the form of a sunset mechanism or an exit mechanism over which we exercise control but with assurances to our friends and partners in Dublin around its exercise.”