Labour has failed in an attempt to stop Theresa May “running down the clock” to a no-deal Brexit, after MPs voted down the party’s demand for the Prime Minister to bring her Withdrawal Agreement back to the Commons by February 27.
But the PM was facing probable defeat in another dramatic night for Brexit, after eurosceptic Tory backbenchers announced they would abstain on a key Government motion.
They said that the motion tabled by Mrs May would amount to an effective endorsement of efforts to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
A Labour amendment, requiring the Government to stage a second “meaningful vote” on its Brexit deal by February 27 or give Parliament control over the next steps, was defeated by 322 to 306.
Ahead of the votes, Government ministers urged MPs to back Mrs May, arguing that defeat for the Prime Minister would undermine the UK’s chances of securing concessions from Brussels on the controversial “backstop” arrangements for keeping the Irish border open.
But members of the European Research Group of Leave-backing Conservatives emerged from a last-minute meeting in a Westminster committee room to say that they would abstain.
The PM’s motion asks the House to “reiterate” its support for the stance taken by MPs in the last round of Brexit votes on January 29.
On that date, MPs voted not only to authorise the PM to go back to Brussels to renegotiate the controversial Irish backstop, but also for a non-binding amendment to block EU withdrawal without an agreement.
In a day of debate in the Commons ahead of the Valentine’s Day votes, senior Brexiteers voiced reluctance to lend their support to anything which appeared to endorse ruling out no-deal.
Although Downing Street insisted no-deal would remain firmly on the table, former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said he was “struggling with the idea” of backing the Government motion.
And veteran eurosceptic Sir William Cash said he could not vote for a piece of “doublethink” which would “further undermine public trust”.
Opening the day’s debate, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay warned that European leaders would be watching the evening’s votes for “any sign that our resolve is weakening”.
And International Trade Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC: “Our European partners will be watching our debate and listening today to see if they get the impression that if they were to make … concessions, Parliament would definitely deliver on that.”
A Scottish National Party proposal to delay Brexit for three months beyond the scheduled date of March 29 was defeated by 315 to 93.
Pro-EU Conservative Anna Soubry indicated she would not force a vote on her cross-party amendment, which would have required the Government to publish its latest advice on the economic impact of a no-deal Brexit.
Ms Soubry was offered a meeting with the effective deputy prime minister David Lidington to discuss which documents could be released.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer told MPs that “deep down” he did not believe Mrs May was ready to take the UK out of Europe without a deal on March 29.
He maintained she was taking the Brexit debate to the wire in order to be able to confront MPs with a last-minute choice between her deal or no-deal.
He confirmed Labour will back a cross-party plan from backbencher Yvette Cooper – expected to go to a vote on February 27 – which would force the Government to conclude its deal by March 13 or allow MPs to vote on no-deal or a second referendum.
“It is obvious what the Prime Minister is up to – she is pretending to make progress while running down the clock,” said Sir Keir.
“A non-update every other week to buy another two weeks of process, inching ever closer to the March 29 deadline in 43 days. We should not be fooled.”
The latest Brexit showdown came as Dutch PM Mark Rutte told the Financial Times the Netherlands is already benefiting from businesses relocating from a “diminished” Britain.
But Mrs May’s spokesman said Number 10 “disagrees entirely” with Mr Rutte’s stance, adding: “Employment is at a record high, exports are at a record high, companies are continuing to invest in the UK.
“Deloitte named the UK as Europe’s leading destination for foreign direct investment and London as the world’s top city for investment just last month.”
In a bid to keep lines open with EU leaders, Mrs May held phone calls on Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, prime minister Stefan Lofven of Sweden and Portuguese premier Antonio Costa.
People’s Vote protesters seeking a second EU referendum gathered outside Parliament to demonstrate against what they termed a “blindfold Brexit”.
And pro-Brexit campaigners from the Leave Means Leave movement delivered a Valentine’s Day card for the Prime Minister to Downing Street.