MPs have voted to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled date of March 29 in dramatic parliamentary scenes which saw the Conservative Party split down the middle.
More than half of Tory MPs – including seven Cabinet ministers, at least 33 other ministers and whips, and five party vice-chairs – voted against Theresa May’s motion to put back the date when Britain leaves the EU.
Chief Whip Julian Smith abstained, with sources suggesting he did so in order to be able to “broker peace going forward”.
Among those voting in the opposite lobby to the Prime Minister was Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, who had opened debate on the motion on behalf of the Government.
Others included Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss.
Ms Mordaunt said: “Tonight I voted against delaying Brexit, but the Parliament agreed to an extension. It must be a swift one, with purpose. We must deliver the result of the referendum, and hurry up about it.”
Downing Street sources denied that Mrs May had lost control of her Cabinet or her party, insisting that the results were a “natural consequence” of the Prime Minister’s decision to offer a free vote on an issue where many hold strong views.
At a special political Cabinet meeting shortly before the votes, the Prime Minister is understood to have berated four ministers for defying the whip by abstaining the previous night when MPs voted to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
But Downing Street indicated that the four – Greg Clark, David Gauke, Amber Rudd and David Mundell – would not lose their jobs.
A number 10 source characterised the exchange as “productive, open and honest”, adding that Cabinet “collectively agreed to redouble their resolve in working to deliver on the result of the referendum to leave the EU by securing support for a deal”.
The vote to delay Brexit came after Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement was rejected for the second time on Tuesday and MPs voted the following day to rule out no-deal.
A motion in Mrs May’s name, authorising the Prime Minister to request an extension to the two-year Article 50 negotiation process, was passed by 413 votes to 202 – a majority of 211.
Mrs May’s plans for delay were backed by 112 Tories, 236 Labour MPs and 65 other opposition MPs and independents. She was opposed by 188 Tories and all 10 of her DUP allies, as well as Labour MPs Stephen Hepburn, Kate Hoey and Graham Stringer and independent Frank Field.
Only a refusal by the leaders of the 27 remaining EU states to grant the UK an extension at a Brussels summit next week could now preserve the totemic date of March 29 as Brexit Day.
The result was welcomed by business, with Josh Hardie of the CBI saying it showed “there is still some common sense in Westminster”.
But it was denounced by the Leave Means Leave campaign, whose vice-chairman Richard Tice said it was time for “new leadership” which would deliver departure on World Trade Organisation terms.
“MPs are out of touch with the mood of the people, who want to leave on March 29 with a clean WTO Brexit,” said Mr Tice. “They lack courage and belief in our great nation.”
Mrs May has made clear that she hopes to bring her Agreement back to the Commons by March 20 in the hope of securing the support of MPs who rejected it by 230 votes in January and 149 earlier this week. Aides declined to name a date for the third “meaningful vote”.
If she succeeds, she will go to Brussels next Thursday to request a short delay to a date no later than June 30, to give herself time to pass legislative changes necessary for a smooth and orderly Brexit.
But if her deal is rejected for a third time, she believes any extension would have to be far longer and would involve the UK taking part in European Parliament elections in May.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington told MPs that in this case, the Government would stage two weeks of debate following the March 21-22 summit for the Commons to try to establish a majority around a different plan.
Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister absolutely wanted and strived for the UK to be leaving the EU on March 29. Everything she had done since she entered office was intended to deliver that.
“She didn’t want there to be an extension and brought forward the Withdrawal Agreement twice. Parliament chose to reject that deal and we now have to confront the difficult position that decisions taken by Parliament have left us in.
“What we now intend to do if at all possible is to secure a deal which allows us to ask only for a short technical extension which would allow us to have left the EU by June 30.”
European Council president Donald Tusk has indicated that the EU may be ready to offer a lengthy extension to negotiations if the UK wants to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.
But any extension must be approved unanimously by the EU27, and Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl said there could be “some problem” in obtaining this if it took Brexit beyond the date of elections.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar said: “I think we need to be open to any request they make, listen attentively and be generous in our response. This matter will be now discussed further at next week’s European Council meeting and hopefully we will have more clarity from London in the meantime about their intentions.”
A spokesman for the European Commission said it “takes note of tonight’s votes”, adding that president Jean-Claude Juncker was “in constant contact with all leaders”.
Earlier, MPs decisively rejected an attempt by the Independent Group to secure a second referendum on Brexit by 334 votes to 85.
And by the far narrower margin of 314-312, they voted down a cross-party bid for Parliament to seize control of the Brexit process.
The cross-party amendment, tabled by MPs including Labour’s Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper and Tory Sir Oliver Letwin, would have forced a set of “indicative votes” to determine the preferred Brexit outcome of the House of Commons.
A Labour amendment demanding an extension to Article 50 withdrawal negotiations to provide time to “find a majority for a different approach” was also defeated.
The votes came as US President Donald Trump said Brexit was ripping Britain apart and warned that another referendum would be “unfair”.