Theresa May’s draft EU Withdrawal Agreement was rejected by MPs by a margin of 230 votes. With only 202 MPs voting in favour of the deal, this was the largest Parliamentary defeat for a serving government in UK history. 118 backbench Conservative MPs rebelled and voted to reject the deal. The deal was originally scheduled to be voted on in December last year, but due to widespread speculation that it would be rejected, Mrs May deferred it to January.
Mrs May has spent two years in negotiations with the EU to secure a draft deal which covers issues such as citizen’s rights, and the future role of the European Court of Justice. However, many MPs rejected the deal due to the controversial Northern Irish ‘backstop,’ whereby if a trade agreement has not been negotiated between the UK and EU by December 2020, then Northern Ireland would remain in a customs union with the EU to prevent a hard border in Ireland.
Mrs May’s government survived a motion of no confidence tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately after her deal was defeated. His motion was supported by all opposition parties, except the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who chose to vote with the government despite rejecting Mrs May’s deal.
Following her deal’s failure, Mrs May pledged to hold cross-party talks to find a consensus on Brexit. She and senior ministers Michael Gove and David Liddington met with the Parliamentary leaders of the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the DUP and the Green Party.
Mr Corbyn has refused to take part in talks until a no-deal Brexit has been ruled out. Despite Mr Corbyn writing to his MPs asking them not to engage with the talks, two senior backbench Labour MPs, Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn (Chairs of the Home Affairs and Brexit Select Committees respectively), met with the government.
Having had her deal rejected by Parliament, Mrs May set out her revised strategy to MPs. In a statement in the Commons, she outlined her continued commitment to cross-party talks and reiterated that she will not extend or revoke Article 50. She plans to table a neutral motion which would allow MPs to introduce a series of amendments, and those that are passed will shape the Brexit process.
These amendments are likely to reflect the diverse range of opinions amongst MPs. Some are calling for a ‘hard’ Brexit, whereby the UK leaves the EU without an agreement. Other MPs favour a ‘softer’ Brexit, such as membership of a customs union or of the European Economic Area – the so-called Norway model. Some Leave-supporting MPs, including ex-ministers Boris Johnson and David Davis, are calling for a trade agreement modelled on the EU-Canada deal, but the Government argues that this does not resolve the issue of the Northern Irish border. The Labour Party is campaigning for a general election and a group of cross-party MPs are calling for a second referendum, dubbed the People’s Vote.
One amendment, not supported by the Government, comes from a group of MPs including Ms Cooper, Conservative Nicky Morgan and North Norfolk’s Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrat). Their Bill aims to prevent a no deal Brexit by forcing the Government to extend Article 50 if a withdrawal agreement is not completed by 28 February.