Britain lurches towards third General Election in four years as rebel MPs seize control of Brexit from embattled PM and three ministers quit raising fears Commons will demand a softer EU exit that May would REFUSE to honour
- Ministers have stepped up preparations for the possibility of a general election
- Theresa May previously hinted an election may be needed to break deadlock
- The Prime Minister previously said she was not prepared to accept a soft Brexit
Brexit chaos could plunge Britain into a general election in weeks, ministers said yesterday.
As the Government’s strategy went into meltdown, senior ministers ‘war-gamed’ scenarios that could see a national poll called three years ahead of schedule.
Theresa May appeared to hint that an election might be needed to break the deadlock – telling MPs she was not prepared to accept a soft Brexit even if they voted for one. The Prime Minister had been forced to abandon plans to put her withdrawal agreement before the Commons for a third time today after DUP leader Arlene Foster maintained her opposition.
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The defeated Prime Minister photographed leaving the Palace of Westminster tonight after enduring yet another torrid day over Brexit
And ministers were braced for MPs to take control of Brexit last night in a bid to make Mrs May pursue other options – or even end the process altogether. The move by Oliver Letwin of the Tories and Yvette Cooper of Labour would let MPs hold ‘indicative votes’ tomorrow on options – including revocation of Article 50 – which Mrs May would then be told to deliver.
In other developments:
- Jacob Rees-Mogg gave Mrs May a glimmer of hope by telling a private meeting of Eurosceptic MPs that he would vote for her plan provided the DUP came on board
- Penny Mordaunt warned fellow Cabinet ministers that the Government could face an outbreak of French-style ‘gilet jaune’ protests if it failed to deliver Brexit;
- Former Cabinet minister John Whittingdale became the most senior Tory to warn publicly that he would back Mrs May only if she agreed to set out a timetable for her own departure;
- Mrs May sparked a backlash from Eurosceptic Tories by warning of a ‘slow Brexit’ if her plan is rejected again – and appearing to rule out No Deal;
- The Prime Minister voiced regret for her attack last week on ‘game-playing’ MPs;
- Downing Street said that the Commons would be asked to vote tomorrow on whether to change the law to extend the UK’s exit date until at least April 12.
The historic moment the Government lost the Letwin amendment by 329 votes to 302, a whopping majority of 27 for the rebels. The last time a similar vote was held a fortnight ago it lost by two votes
Richard Harrington was one of three MPs to stand down on Monday night over the crucial vote
Another MP to stand down was Steve Brine, the MP for Winchester (pictured)
Alistair Burt and Mr Green joined the rebellion just a day after they were part of a delegation of ministers and former ministers invited by the Prime Minister to Chequers
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told a meeting of the Cabinet that failure to pass Mrs May’s plan in the coming weeks would almost inevitably lead to an election.
Writing in the Daily Mail, he today makes a last-ditch appeal to hardline Leavers to get behind Mrs May – or face losing Brexit altogether. Two weeks ago his legal advice led many Tory MPs to reject the withdrawal agreement because of fears the UK could remain in the Irish border backstop.
But today he argues the plan’s disadvantages have been ‘exaggerated and demonised’ by opponents of Brexit.
If MPs do not vote for the agreement in the coming days, he says the Commons will ‘exert itself’ and try to force either a second referendum, or a plan that keeps the UK inside the customs union and single market.
He warns ‘powerful and unreconciled forces’ who opposed Brexit were still trying to stop it and says his biggest fear is the UK will never regain its ‘independence’.
He says: ‘We must grasp our freedom now and heed the beckoning call of the future, for if we do not, history will marvel that we spurned this fleeting moment of opportunity.’
No one wants another election! Only 12 PER CENT of the public say they want to go to the polls – but ministers say they WILL call one if MPs try to force a soft Brexit
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay leaving Downing Street with Theresa May today after cabinet, at which he is said to have again floated the idea of holding a General Election
Ministers including Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay are said to have raised the prospect if Parliament votes this evening to wrestle control of the withdrawal process.
The Commons will tonight vote on a series of amendments to a Government motion that would pave the way to so-called indicative votes taking place on Wednesday.
These would allow MPs to show what sort of Brexit they wish to push through if a majority cannot be found for Mrs May’s twice-defeated deal.
The talk of forcing a General Election come despite an Opinium poll from two months ago finding that only 12 per cent of Britons would welcome another one, just two years after the last resulted in a hung Parliament.
Mr Barclay reportedly repeated at Cabinet today warnings he gave on television yesterday.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show he said that if the Commons took control of the order paper and votes for a different outcome, it would ‘potentially collide with fundamental commitments the Government has given in their manifesto’, though he said the vote itself would ‘not be binding’.
Explaining the scenario, he said: ‘What Parliament has done is vote for a number of contradictory things so we would need to untangle that but ultimately, at its logical conclusion, the risk of a general election increases because you potentially have a situation where Parliament is instructing the executive to do something that is counter to what it was elected to do.’
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox this morning gave a stark warning to MPs, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘I was elected, as 80 per cent of members were, to respect the referendum and leave the European Union.
‘I was also elected on a manifesto that specifically said no single market and no customs union.
‘That, for Conservative MPs who are honouring the manifesto, limits their room for manoeuvre.
The former hardline Brexiteer turned May loyalist added that the prospect of a longer Brexit delay meaning participation in May’s European Elections would ‘unleash a torrent of pent-up frustration from voters’.
‘I’m not sure that there are many people in the House of Commons who would fancy that particular meeting with voters,’ he said.
‘It would unleash a torrent of pent-up frustration from voters and I think that the major parties will do what they can to avoid having to fight those European elections.
‘There is nothing in politics like a little bit of self-interest to concentrate the minds, and I think, as we get towards that date, increasingly my colleagues will have to decide which of the limited options they want to follow.’
He urged MPs to back Mrs May’s deal, warning: ‘For a lot of my colleagues, I think they still believe there is a route to no deal. I have come to the conclusion some time ago that was unlikely given the House of Commons that we have.
‘I think we will see today that there is a mood in the House of Commons to stop us leaving without a deal, even if that means no Brexit. I think that is a constitutionally disastrous position.’
Theresa May indicated in the Commons earlier today that she would allocate Government time for indicative votes if the Letwin Amendment was defeated
At yesterday’s Cabinet meeting, Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay repeated his weekend warning that an election would be the logical conclusion of the Government losing control over the Brexit process.
Fellow ministers Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom and Alan Cairns also warned that they believed an election was increasingly likely.
One source said: ‘If we lose control of the process then we are heading for an election.
‘We’ll either lose a confidence vote – in which case you could even get Corbyn without an election – or we will be forced to go for an election ourselves.’
Another source said: ‘It’s not just scaremongering, it’s the only way out of this.’
A Downing Street spokesman said that Mrs May was opposed to a general election.
But a senior Tory source acknowledged it was a growing possibility, adding: ‘The reason the Cabinet is so determined to get this deal through is that there is a full understanding that the alternatives are pretty grim.’
Mrs May told yesterday’s emergency Cabinet meeting that she hoped to put her agreement to the vote for a third time today.
But the move was vetoed by the DUP, whose support is seen as critical in persuading Eurosceptic Tories to fall in line.
The Tories who rebelled against Theresa May
Twenty nine Tories including three ministers rebelled against the whip tonight to hand Theresa May a devastating defeat. They were:
- Guto Bebb
- Richard Benyon
- Nick Boles
- Steve Brine (minister)
- Alistair Burt (minister)
- Kenneth Clarke
- Damian Collins
- Alberto Costa
- Jonathan Djanogly
- George Freeman
- Damian Green
- Justine Greening
- Dominic Grieve
- Sam Gyimah
- Richard Harrington (minister)
- Joseph Johnson
- Phillip Lee
- Jeremy Lefroy
- Oliver Letwin
- Paul Masterton
- Andrew Mitchell
- Nicky Morgan
- Robert Neill
- Sarah Newton
- Mark Pawsey
- Antoinette Sandbach
- Nicholas Soames
- Caroline Spelman
- John Stevenson
- Edward Vaizey (voted twice to abstain)
The Prime Minister told MPs: ‘With great regret I have had to conclude that as things stand, there is still not sufficient support in the House to bring back a third meaningful vote.’
Mrs May’s deputy David Lidington last night said the Government still hoped to hold a vote this week. But the DUP appeared to be digging in. Deputy leader Nigel Dodds rounded angrily on Mrs May in the Commons yesterday after she said more time was needed to prepare Northern Ireland for the possibility of No Deal.
Mr Dodds said the Government was ‘entirely responsible’ for what he described as a ‘fundamental lack of preparation’.
Plans for the Government to put forward its own proposals for indicative votes were dropped ahead of yesterday’s meeting. Many ministers, including Dr Fox, Chris Grayling, Gavin Williamson and Mrs Leadsom, are opposed to the process. But Mr Lidington tried to head off a defeat last night by pledging that the Government would provide Commons time for MPs to try to reach an agreement on an alternative Brexit.
Sir Oliver told MPs his plan, which has been rejected by MPs twice since the start of the year, would allow Parliament to vote tomorrow on a string of Brexit options. These might include a customs union, a single market, a second referendum and even revocation of Article 50.
Mrs May said she was sceptical that the process would find a solution, adding: ‘No government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is.’ Asked whether she would be prepared for a customs union if Parliament backed it, she replied: ‘No one would want to support an option which contradicted the manifesto on which they stood.’
Labour backed Sir Oliver’s plan. But its Brexit spokesman, Sir Keir Starmer, also refused to guarantee to back any resulting proposal.
Sir Oliver’s move to give MPs control over the path to Brexit attracted cross-party support and won by a convincing margin in the Commons to heap fresh pressure on Theresa May
Brexit Q&A – How a motley bunch of MPs plan to take control
What amendments did MPs vote on?
The Speaker selected three for debate and vote yesterday. One, from Jeremy Corbyn, was a fudge designed to avoid splitting his own MPs and called for votes on a series of options – including a second referendum.
Another, from former Labour foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, would have forced MPs to be given a vote on whether to push ahead with No Deal or to delay Brexit.
But the most significant was proposed by former Tory Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin and backed by some Remainer Tories, Labour and other opposition parties. It was designed to take control of Brexit out of ministers’ hands.
What does the Letwin amendment do?
It changes the rules of the House of Commons, the standing orders, to pass control of the agenda from the Government and hand it to backbench MPs.
If it passes then tomorrow afternoon MPs will stage a series of so-called ‘indicative votes’ on what should happen next with Brexit. The Speaker will select the motions to be debated, which are likely to include a second referendum, Labour’s Brexit plan, a Customs Union Brexit, a so-called ‘Norway plus’ plan. Unusually MPs will vote on paper – pink slips which list the options. The votes will not be binding on the Government, but will send a strong signal about what kind of Brexit a majority of MPs are prepared to back and would heap pressure on Mrs May.
Why is he doing it?
Mr Letwin says he wants to stop No Deal because the Government hasn’t properly prepared for leaving without an agreement. He argues Parliament should take over the process to find a Brexit which can secure the support of the Commons. He is a supporter of the super-soft ‘Norway plus’ option, which is likely to mean the UK accepting single market rules without a say in them and paying vast contributions to the EU Budget. It could also mean a permanent customs union, making trade deals impossible.
What do critics say?
They say Mr Letwin’s plan amounts to a coup and is ‘constitutionally dangerous’. A leaked Whitehall analysis of the plans to let MPs take charge say they pose a ‘clear and present danger’ to ministers’ ‘ability to govern’. Yesterday Mr Letwin denied his proposal is a ‘massive constitutional revolution’.
Is a general election more likely?
Several senior ministers argued in Cabinet that if Parliament tried to instruct the executive to do something the Government deeply opposed, such as remaining in the customs union or the single market, an election could follow. Mrs May indicated as much in the Commons when she argued ‘no-one would want to support an option which contradicted the manifesto on which they stood’.
How could an election happen?
Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the Prime Minister cannot simply call an election. There are two ways one could result. The first is that two thirds of MPs vote for an election when Mrs May proposes one. The second is that the PM loses a confidence vote and nobody can win one – ie command a majority – within a two-week period.
Rebel MPs seize control of Brexit: Three ministers quit on night of drama in the Commons as 30 Tories defy May
The Commons voted by 329 votes to 302 – a majority of 27 – to approve an amendment brought by Tory ex-minister Sir Oliver Letwin allowing it to take control of business on Wednesday from the Government.
This will allow MPs to select their favorite Brexit option in so-called ‘indicative votes’, which are likely to include soft Brexit options and the possibility of remaining in the European Union.
Three ministers were among 29 Tory rebels who defied the Prime Minister and backed the amendment.
Minutes before the vote Watford’s Richard Harrington quit as an energy minister in order to support the Letwin plan, accusing the Government of ‘playing roulette’ with people’s lives.
He was followed by Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt and health minister Steve Brine.
Other high profile Tories to rebel included former ministers Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening, Andrew Mitchell, Sam Gyimah, Damian Green, Alberto Costa and Dominic Grieve, plus Damian Collins, chairman of the Culture Committee.
The Government later lost the main motion by 327 votes to 300, the same margin.
It came after MPs had narrowly rejected a backbench amendment brought by Dame Margaret Beckett to allow the Commons to have a vote if the UK is seven days away from leaving the EU without a deal, by 314 votes to 311, a majority of three.
Pro-Europe Tory MP Nick Boles, who backed the indicative votes amendment, told the BBC: ‘It is a much better victory than any of us had dared hope.’
Mr Boles added: ‘We will be relying on the Government to reflect Parliament’s wishes.
‘If, ultimately, the Government refuses to listen to what Parliament has voted for then we will look to bring forward a Bill, pass an Act of Parliament that will require the Government to reflect Parliament’s wishes in its new negotiating mandate.’
Fellow Tory rebel Guto Bebb said: ‘The scale of the Government’s defeat and the principled resignations of ministers Richard Harrington, Alistair Burt and Steve Brine tonight are more nails in the coffin of a Brexit deal that very few in the country or Parliament have ever wanted.
‘The Prime Minister has now lost control of this process.
‘What is needed now in this national emergency is not more posturing or playing roulette with people’s lives but to give Parliament the time and space needed to work out what Brexit means, as well as begin preparing for important democratic elections to the European Parliament.’
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also welcomed the result, hailing the fact the House had now ‘taken control’.
He said: ‘This Government has been an abject failure and this House must now find a solution…
‘This House must also consider whether any deal should be put to the people for a confirmatory vote.
‘Where this Government has failed, this House must, and I believe will, succeed.’
Tory former minister Ed Vaizey voted both for and against Sir Oliver’s amendment, which is regarded as a formal abstention.
Brexiteer Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen said it was time for Theresa May to quit.