Theresa May looks set to escape a catastrophic blow to her administration but only after a humiliating climbdown from her staunch opposition to delaying Brexit.
Wednesday had promised to bring the prime minister mass-frontbench resignations and a crushing Commons defeat, but Remainer rebels relented after she agreed to give them a way to stop a no-deal Brexit and push withdrawal beyond 29 March.
But the political costs of her capitulation to the Remain wing of her party could be heavy, with some Brexiteer backbenchers outraged that she went back on months of repeated vows to leave the EU at the end of March.
Unrest also simmered over in Labour as MPs in Brexit-backing heartland constituencies slammed Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to move closer to offering a second referendum.
Wednesday’s vote on the plan to let MPs seize control of the Brexit process and pass legislation to delay Brexit, put forward by ex-Tory minister Oliver Letwin and Labour MP Yvetter Cooper, had been billed as “high noon”.
Three cabinet ministers, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark, wrote an open letter warning they could resign and back the plan if Ms May did not herself take the option of no deal off the table – something she has repeatedly refused to do.
After Ms May’s dramatic statement, one source close to the cabinet trio told The Independent that the PM had done enough to avert a rebellion on Wednesday that could have ended in the collapse of her government, but also pointed to another potential crunch point further down the line.
Taking a more emollient tone, the source said: “Parliament should support the PM’s deal. But if parliament rejects that deal, then an extension will be necessary and the wording of that amendable motion will be crucial.”
Sensing a calamitous hit to her authority, Ms May told MPs on Tuesday that is she loses a “meaningful vote” on her revamped deal, due to take place by 12 March, MPs will be offered separate votes on a no-deal Brexit or extending the two-year Article 50 negotiation process beyond 29 March.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Mr Letwin tweeted after the prime minister’s address to the Commons: “Very good news.
“PM statement does what is needed to prevent no deal exit on 29 March and enables MPs to forge cross-party consensus on new way forward if PM’s deal does not succeed on 12 March. No need now for Cooper-Letwin Bill.”
Conservative MP Nick Boles, another member behind the push to take no deal off the table, said he was “gratified” the PM had backed down.
He added: “This is a victory for parliament. We will lay amendments to her motion this afternoon and seek confirmation of her commitments from ministers during tomorrow’s debate.”
The prime minister left no doubt that she does not want a delay and still hopes to obtain assurances from Brussels which will win MPs’ approval for her withdrawal agreement in a fortnight’s time.
But Ms May’s official spokesman refused to be drawn on other key aspects of the government’s approach if her deal is rejected – for example, would the government whip MPs to support no deal or not in that instance, or would it whip them to support a delay.
They did indicate that it is Ms May’s preference to delay Brexit no later than June, if she must do it at all, in order to avoid the UK having to take part in European parliament elections, but they could not rule out MPs forcing a longer setback.
Some Conservative Brexiteer backbenchers appeared relaxed over Ms May’s announcement, claiming that even if Brexit is delayed the default position at the end would still be a no-deal Brexit.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the European Research Group of Leave-backing Conservative MPs, instead attacked colleagues who had been behind the drive of trying to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum.
He said: “My suspicion is that any delay to Brexit is a plot to stop Brexit. This would be the most grievous error that politicians could commit.”
But fellow Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen MP was angry that Remain-backing cabinet ministers had not resigned when they opposed the prime minister’s approach, as Eurosceptics like Boris Johnson and David Davis had.
He said: “It appears that Leavers moan and leave the cabinet, but Remainers moan and remain. It’s very selective collective responsibility.”
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