Fresh Brexit defeat for May as Tory hardliners refuse to fall in

MPs reject a motion endorsing the approach approved in Commons only last month

Theresa May has suffered a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons as MPs rejected her approach to Brexit with dozens of her own backbenchers abstaining.

The vote is a blow to the prime minister's authority in negotiating with the European Union as she seeks legally binding changes to the Northern Ireland backstop that guarantees an open border after Brexit.

MPs voted by 303 to 258 to reject a motion endorsing the approach approved last month when the House of Commons voted to support Mrs May’s Brexit deal if the backstop was replaced with alternative arrangements to keep the Border open. The DUP’s 10 MPs voted with the government but Conservative Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) abstained because they feared that the motion also implied a rejection of a no-deal Brexit.

Downing Street said last night that the vote would not change its negotiating strategy with Brussels, adding that it wanted to ensure that the UK would leave the EU on March 29th as planned.


“While we didn’t secure the support of the Commons this evening, the prime minister continues to believe, and the debate itself indicated, that far from objecting to securing changes to the backstop that will allow us to leave with a deal, there was a concern from some Conservative colleagues about taking no deal off the table at this stage,” a spokesman said.

“The motion on January 29th remains the only one the House of Commons has passed expressing what it does want – and that is legally binding changes to address concerns about the backstop. The Government will continue to pursue this with the EU to ensure we leave on time on March 29th,” he added.

ERG ‘treachery’

Conservative Brexiteers last night sought to play down the significance of the vote, which has no legal effect, suggesting that the government could have avoided defeat by consulting them before drafting the motion. But moderate Conservatives condemned the ERG as "a party within a party" and business minister Richard Harrington accused them of treachery.

"I read that Nigel Farage is setting up a new party called 'Brexit' and, if I were them, I'd be looking at that because that seems to reflect their views more than the Conservative Party does. They should read carefully what that party's got to offer, because in my view they're not Conservatives," he said.

The prime minister spoke to a number of EU leaders on the phone yesterday, including German chancellor Angela Merkel. Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay told MPs Mrs May was making progress in negotiations. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the vote showed that there was no majority at Westminster for Mrs May's course of action on Brexit.

“This can’t go on. The government can’t keep ignoring parliament or ploughing on towards March 29th without a coherent plan. The prime minister needs to admit that her strategy has failed, shift her red lines and come back with a proposal that can truly command majority support in parliament,” he said.

During an appearance at the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee yesterday, Tánaiste Simon Coveney expressed frustration at the absence of "a proper formal dialogue" between the two main parties at Westminster on agreeing a Brexit deal with just 43 days until the UK is due to leave the EU.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times