The British government has suffered another significant defeat as MPs voted to reject a no-deal Brexit at any time, overriding the government’s initial motion that ruled out no-deal but only on March 29 and left open the possibility of it taking place at a later stage. There were gasps in the House of Commons chamber as the amendment by Caroline Spelman — a Conservative MP — scraped through by a margin of four (312 votes to 308). In a dramatic turn of events shortly before the vote, Ms. Spelman herself attempted to withdraw the amendment — which the government was ordering its MPs to vote against — but Speaker of the House John Bercow declined to do this automatically, insisting it could still be voted on if one of its other backers continue to press it. In a subsequent vote on the amended motion, MPs once again backed ruling out no deal by 321 to 278 votes.
The vote is non-binding on the government and does not ensure the U.K. can’t crash out without a deal on March 29. For now under current legislation the default is for Britain to leave the E.U. without a deal on that date, unless a deal is struck, Article 50 is revoked or an extension is agreed by both sides. The E.U. has made clear that it will only agree to an extension if there is “credible” justification for it, and not simply for the political impasse in Parliament to continue. In addition some Brexit supporters — such as Nigel Farage — have been lobbying E.U. countries to veto any attempt by Britain to push for an extension.
Nevertheless, the defeat is highly significant, indicative of the extent to which authority has been slipping away from the Prime Minister. With it clear that Parliament is against leaving without a deal, the pressure will be on for her to resolve the political impasse through compromise. That message was certainly put forward by Chancellor Philip Hammond earlier in the day as – while delivering his “spring” statement on Britain’s borrowing and spending forecasts said MPs had a “solemn duty in the days ahead to put aside our differences and seek a compromise.” Labour has accused the government of putting on a pretence of being prepared to negotiate because of May’s refusal to consider Labour’s proposals which include remaining in a customs union and close single market alignment.
Speaking after the votes, a visibly shaken Ms. May said that the onus was on Parliament to find out what they agreed on. In the meantime, as previously promised the government will hold a vote on March 14 on enabling a “short technical” extension to Brexit — with enough time to break the political stalemate but short enough to ensure Britain doesn’t have to participate in the European Parliament elections in the summer. If this were not accepted, then it would raise the possibility of a “much longer extension to Article 50”, requiring the U.K. to participate in those E.U. elections, Ms. May said – in a clear warning to Brexiteers.