The government’s Brexit deal has been resoundingly rejected by MPs in the biggest defeat for the government in the House of Commons since the 1920s.
Last night’s vote (15 January) on the terms of the withdrawal agreement negotiated by Theresa May saw 112 Conservative MPs vote against the government. A total of 202 MPs voted for the deal, while 432 voted against it, a majority of 230.
The rejection of the deal by MPs represents the biggest defeat on a vote ever experienced by a government – Ramsay MacDonald’s government was defeated on a vote by 166 votes in October 1924.
Following the announcement of the result, Theresa May rose to address MPs on the government’s plans going forward, while stating that time would be given today to debate a motion of no confidence if one were tabled.
“The House has spoken and the government will listen,” she said. “But tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support. Nothing about how or even if it intends to honour the decision the British people took in a referendum that Parliament decided to hold. And people, particularly EU citizens who have made their home here and UK citizens living in the EU deserve clarity on these questions as soon as possible.”
In response, leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn immediately tabled a vote of no confidence, which will be debated today, saying: “This is a catastrophic defeat for this government. After two years of failed negotiations, the House of Commons has delivered its verdict on her Brexit deal, and that verdict is absolutely decisive.”
A passing of a vote of no confidence in the government by a simple majority of MPs would see the government dissolve and the opposition given 14 days to form a government that commands the support of the House under the Fixed-term Parliament Act. If it cannot do this, then a general election would be called.
However, it seems unlikely that such a motion would pass since the both Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports the government in a confidence and supply arrangement, and the Conservative Party’s Brexit-supporting European Research Group (ERG), have announced they would support the government, along with Conservative Remainers. In the event that her government survives the vote, May stated that she would hold talks with senior parliamentarians over how to proceed.
She will make a statement to the Commons on Monday (21 January), following negotiations to find a solution palatable to the majority of MPs, to lay out how she plans to proceed. Crucially, such a statement would be amendable, meaning MPs will be able to table amendments to rally support for alternatives to a no deal Brexit, including a Norway-style agreement or a second referendum.
In response to the vote in the Commons, the EU urged clarity on the UK’s position as soon as possible, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warning that “time is almost up”.
“I take note with regret the outcome of the vote in the House of Commons this evening,” he said. “On the EU side, the process of ratification of the withdrawal agreement continues”.
He added: “The risk of a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom has increased with this evening’s vote. While we do not want this to happen, the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared.”
Meanwhile, President of the European Council Donald Tusk intimated in a tweet following the result that the “only positive solution” to the Brexit impasse would be for the UK to remain in the EU.
If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) January 15, 2019
While there appears to be a majority against no deal in the Commons, the route forward is unclear. Although most MPs want to avoid no deal, there is no agreement on how it should be avoided – a situation that will have to be resolved quickly as the UK is now headed for a no deal Brexit by default under the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act, which fixes the date of the UK’s departure as 29 March 2019, with or without a deal.
Moves for a second referendum are expected to go into overdrive now that May’s deal has been rejected. The People’s Vote campaign, supported by politicians from across the political divide, is calling for an extension of Article 50 – which would require the assent of the 27 EU member states – to give time for a second referendum on leaving the EU and allow the public to have the final decision on the UK’s future relationship with Europe.
I’ll be supporting motion of no confidence - this Govt is toxic— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) January 15, 2019
But election where both biggest parties support #Brexit won't heal very real divisions this process has caused.
I’ll keep campaigning for #PeoplesVote to give the public a say on #Brexit - no matter who's in No 10.
To hold a referendum, the House of Commons would have to legislate for one. A major stumbling block to this is the reluctance of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to support one, as to have any chance of being passed, the legislation would have to command the support of nearly all Labour MPs.
A motion was passed at Labour Conference in September 2018 that in the event that Labour could not force a general election following the rejection of the government’s deal, then it would explore all options, including a second public vote. As the no confidence vote tabled last night seems unlikely to pass, therefore precluding the calling of an election for the time being, Labour’s policy is to then look at all options.
However, this does not necessarily mean that Corbyn will now support a second referendum, despite the overwhelming majority of Labour members being in favour of one. Unlike the motion of no confidence in Theresa May’s leadership that was tabled by Conservative MPs before Christmas – May’s victory in which means that another cannot be tabled for at least 12 months – there is no limit to the number of no confidence motions the opposition can bring against the government. There are suggestions that Corbyn will go for several motions of no confidence, as opposed to going straight for supporting a second referendum.