Theresa May has launched a desperate final bid to save her battered Brexit deal after a clutch of cabinet ministers inflicted a fresh Commons humiliation on her premiership.
In yet another hugely damaging challenge to her authority, the prime minister failed to sack 12 ministers who defied her orders on permanently ruling out a no-deal exit from the European Union.
With Tory MPs in open warfare in the wake of the chaos, May unveiled one last gamble to get her EU-UK divorce plans through parliament, signalling they would be put to MPs a third time next week.
She announced that MPs would on Thursday be asked to back a short delay to Brexit, putting back exit day from March 29 to June 30, to allow time to implement her deal.
But the government motion also allows for Brexit to be delayed for much longer, possibly years, if the Commons decides to reject her plans and plumps instead for alternatives such as a second referendum or a ‘softer’ break with the 27-nation bloc.
The motion states that if MPs have not backed May’s deal by the time of the EU summit next Thursday, a long delay to Brexit would be needed and the UK would have to hold European Parliament elections this May.
The wording of the plans sparked instant anger in the Commons as MPs accused May of ignoring the will of parliament by ploughing on regardless.
The PM’s deal has twice been rejected by crushing majorities, and some of her MPs believe a third defeat would spark a fresh demand for her to resign from No.10.
The meltdown of May’s authority began after a panicked U-turn by government whips to drop a free vote and instead order MPs to support a compromise plan to keep the threat of no-deal on the table. Remainer ministers, who have long vowed to quit rather than back no-deal, revolted.
One MP said the entire row could have been avoided if international trade Secretary Liam Fox had given stronger assurances to Labour’s Yvette Cooper that ministers would rule out no-deal.
When he failed to do so, Cooper moved a backbench motion that inflicted a new Commons defeat and triggered the subsequent rejection of May’s own wording.
Earlier in the day, chancellor Philip Hammond had openly defied the PM by declaring in his Spring Statement that he wanted a ‘compromise’ on Brexit.
Even before a vote rejecting no-deal, by a majority of 43, frantic efforts were underway to woo her DUP partners and backbench Tories to swing behind her deal next week.
Secret Cabinet Office meetings were held with government and backbenchers to seek fresh ways to give new assurances that the UK would not be ‘trapped’ in EU rules indefinitely.
However, one DUP source told HuffPost UK that the party had made clear to the chief whip that it would not support the current deal.
And in the Commons, lead Brexiteer Steve Baker issued a stark warning to May that his 80-strong European Research Group (ERG) would never sign up to the proposals that had been twice rejected.
In an extraordinary act of defiance, Baker said the deal was “so rotten” that he and his colleagues couldn’t vote for it.
“When ‘meaningful vote three’ comes back, we will keep voting it down. Please don’t do it, go back to the EU and say ‘it won’t pass’,” he told Commons leader Andrea Leadsom.
Earlier, four cabinet ministers – David Mundell, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark – and Claire Perry, who attends cabinet, defied a three-line whip to abstain on May’s proposal to keep a no-deal exit on the table.
Junior work and pension minister Sarah Newton quit her post after voting against the government.
Scottish secretary Mundell said: “I’ve always opposed a no-deal Brexit. The PM has my full support in her objective of leaving the EU with a deal to deliver an orderly Brexit.”
There was almost total confusion at one point, with some of the cabinet claiming they’d been given special permission by No.10 to abstain, and whips arguing they had seen no such licence.
Business secretary Greg Clark told ITV’s Peston: “The whipping was decided very late in the day, and not after collective government discussion.”
A No.10 spokesman said that “voting against the government is a resigning matter”, but refused to say that those who abstained would be sacked, as convention usually required. “We will have to have a look [at that],” he added.
May soon faced a backlash for refusing to discipline any of the 12 ministers who abstained. One senior Tory shouted at whips in the MPs’ lobby: “Why haven’t you sacked them?”
A former cabinet minister told HuffPost UK that he had told the chief whip: “If ministers felt unable to support the government on a three-line whip are allowed to remain in place, you will have no way to persuade any colleagues ever to support future three-line whips.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg added: “Collective responsibility requires ministers to support government policy or to resign. It is a basic constitutional point.”
After the vote to rule out no-deal for good, the pound soared to its highest level against the euro for nearly two years.
Following May’s fresh defeat, Jeremy Corbyn told her: “Parliament must now take control of the situation.
“Myself, the shadow Brexit secretary and others will have meetings with members across the House to find a compromise solution that can command support in the House.”