The Commons gives itself the chance to take control of Brexit chaos as three ministers resign
26 March 2019, 01:10 | Updated: 26 March 2019, 08:51
Theresa May is at the mercy of her mutinous cabinet once again as she attempts to rescue her Brexit strategy from disarray after MPs dramatically seized control of the agenda.
The Cabinet is meeting for the second time in 24 hours after the Prime Minister suffered a humiliating Commons defeat which could lead to a "soft" Brexit that keeps the UK closer to Brussels.
MPs voted by 329 to 302, a majority of 27, for a cross-party amendment proposing a series of "indicative votes" in the Commons on a range of options as well as the PM's twice-rejected Brexit deal.
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Three pro-Remain government ministers - Alistair Burt, Richard Harrington and Steve Brine - resigned as they voted against the government. In all, 30 Conservative MPs, all Remainers, rebelled.
In a hard-hitting resignation letter, Mr Harrington, a former Business Minister, said the Government was "playing roulette with the lives and livelihoods of the vast majority of people in this country".
The latest Commons defeat, on an amendment proposed by Tory ex-minister Sir Oliver Letwin, has plunged the Brexit process even deeper into chaos, with many MPs now claiming only a second referendum or a general election can break the deadlock.
Now MPs must vote - probably on Wednesday - on a series of Brexit options, likely to include:
:: No deal
:: The PM's deal
:: A Norway-style deal
:: A customs union;
:: A second referendum
:: Revoking Article 50
But with the cabinet bitterly divided on Brexit and senior ministers coming under increasing pressure to tell Mrs May to resign, her attempts to salvage her deal face enormous difficulties.
After the cabinet meeting, a senior minister will almost certainly be hauled before MPs to answer an Urgent Question in the Commons on how the government intends to respond to the "indicative votes" setback.
After the defeat in the Commons, the Brexit department reacted with an angry and defiant statement, warning MPs they risk delaying Brexit and that elections to the European Parliament may have to be held in May.
"It is disappointing to see this amendment pass, as the Government made a clear commitment to provide a process to find a majority in parliament for a way forward this week," a spokesman said.
"This amendment instead upends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous, unpredictable precedent for the future.
"While it is now up to parliament to set out next steps in respect of this amendment, the government will continue to call for realism - any options considered must be deliverable in negotiations with the EU.
"Parliament should take account of how long these negotiations would take and if they'd require a longer extension which would mean holding European Parliamentary elections."
Brexiteer Tory MPs are now coming under pressure to back the PM's deal as they face the prospect of a "soft Brexit" or a lengthy delay as a result of the "indicative votes".
Hardliner Andrew Bridgen told Sky News: "I think we were expecting the Government to be defeated on the Letwin amendment.
"But I think the size of the defeat and the fact that three Government ministers resigned will have been a great disappointment to the Government.
"I think we are going to end up with a general election before the end of this year, probably in the summer.
"What I want to see now is the Prime Minister to stand down, let us have a new leader of the Conservative Party, and then I think we need to go to the country and get a majority so we can actually deliver Brexit."
Pro-Europe Tory MP Nick Boles, who backed the Letwin amendment, said: "It is a much better victory than any of us had dared hope. 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."
But earlier, in a statement to MPs before the debate on the Letwin amendment, the Prime Minister angered many MPs by declaring she would not feel bound by the result of any indicative votes.
"No government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is," she told MPs.
"So I cannot commit the government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House. But I do commit to engaging constructively with this process."
Once again, Commons Speaker John Bercow will have enormous influence on how the votes are conducted by selecting which options MPs will vote on.
But Mr Bercow became involved in another furious row with Conservative MPs after the Government's defeat when he brutally slapped down former Tory minister Greg Hands during a series of Points of Order.
"I don't require any help from (Mr Hands)," said Mr Bercow. "I wouldn't have the foggiest idea where to start. He was once a whip, he wasn't a very good whip."
There was uproar in the chamber as MPs demanded an apology. Mr Bercow eventually relented and said: "What I would say is if I have caused offence I very happily apologise."