Parliament is finally set to vote on different Brexit options next week, after ministers bowed to cross-party pressure and admitted Theresa May’s deal was unlikely to ever win MPs’ approval.
The votes, expected on Wednesday, will be the first time the House of Commons will rank different Brexit options — more than 1,000 days after the referendum took place.
David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister, and Greg Clark, the business secretary, both committed to allowing MPs so-called indicative votes, which will probably include options such as staying in a customs union and a second referendum. Kwasi Kwarteng, a Brexit minister, said it would be “surprising” if Conservative MPs were told to follow a party line on the votes.
The government’s willingness to hand over control of the Brexit process to the House of Commons infuriated some Eurosceptic Conservative MPs. Marcus Fysh, a pro-Leave Tory, called it “the most ludicrous, childish and unrealistic idea I have ever seen”.
Mrs May’s leadership is already facing increasing pressure, following a week in which she lurched towards a no-deal Brexit only to relent and concede to a delay offered by EU leaders.
Some Tory MPs now expect the prime minister to resign if she again fails to win parliamentary approval for her withdrawal deal. One cabinet minister said: “If she loses the vote next week, I can’t see how she could carry on.” A Downing Street insider said: “I don’t think parliament is going to vote for any deal . . . It’s like she’s given up inside.”
Divisions within the Conservative party have deepened since Mrs May made a televised address late on Wednesday in which she criticised MPs for playing “political games” and implied she was ready to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. Julian Smith, the Tory chief whip, has described the statement as “appalling”.
Although Mrs May cannot be formally challenged as Conservative leader until December, a number of MPs — including Ben Bradley — have called on her to quit.
“MPs have been saying it for months,” Mr Bradley told the FT. “This is why I had to say it to her face because I’m never convinced these messages get through.”
Downing Street had planned to put its deal to a third vote as soon as Tuesday, but may now wait, in the hope that the indicative votes show a lack of support for other options.
The indicative votes process is likely to occur even without the government’s backing: a cross-party group of MPs, led by the Conservative party’s Oliver Letwin, will push an amendment on Monday aimed at taking control of Wednesday’s order paper. A similar scheme failed by only two votes this month.
Under Sir Oliver’s plan, MPs would propose a number of Brexit options. The Commons would vote for or against each one. There would not be an alternative vote system — where votes are redistributed after each round. Instead if no option received a majority, MPs would be given the chance to rethink, make compromises and vote again. “A bit like the cardinals electing a pope,” said one MP backing the plan. However, Mr Lidington raised the prospect of an alternative vote system in meetings with opposition parties on Friday.
Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, told the BBC that MPs should first seek a longer delay to Brexit, so they could decide on an exit from the EU “in less of an atmosphere of frenzy”.
EU leaders have so far offered to delay Brexit by two weeks, to April 12, if the UK does not approve Mrs May’s deal, or to May 22, if it does.
After this week’s EU summit, Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, said the UK faced “very obvious” choices between Mrs May’s agreement, no deal, or moves to gauge parliament’s support of options “for a much closer long-term relationship with the EU”.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said there was little more the EU could do. “The fate of Brexit is in the hands of our British friends,” he said.
Control of events appeared to be slipping from Mrs May’s hands. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, will rule whether she can bring her deal back for a third vote; he has vowed to block it if it is not substantially changed. Number 10 argued that the situation had changed, because the EU council had endorsed assurances on the Irish backstop — a measure loathed by Brexiters but intended to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. But those assurances were already taken into account by the Speaker before he allowed the second meaningful vote 10 days ago.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, whose votes are crucial for the deal to pass, attacked the prime minister for her “disappointing and inexcusable” failure to change the agreement at the EU summit.
“We will not accept any deal which poses a long-term risk to the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom,” said Nigel Dodds, the party’s leader in Westminster.
Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, will on Saturday call for a second referendum at a pro-Remain London march, where hundreds of thousands of campaigners are expected to turn up. Meanwhile, a government petition to revoke Article 50 has received more than 3.6m signatures in the past 48 hours.
Additional reporting by George Parker in Brussels