London, Mar 14 : British MPs have voted to reject the possibility of the UK leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement in place, raising prospects of delaying the March 29 deadline for the divorce to end months of political deadlock.
After her Brexit deal was heavily voted down for a second time on Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a government motion ruling out a no-deal Brexit on March 29.
May promised MPs a free vote, but the motion was carefully worded, with the final sentence stating that, "leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this house and the EU ratify an agreement”.
The motion said the UK should not leave the EU without a deal specifically on March 29, but with the option of a no-deal Brexit at any other time. The government wanted to keep control of the Brexit process, and keep no-deal on the table.
MPs voted by 312 to 308 to support a backbench amendment which struck out that last phrase so as to rule out a no-deal exit altogether.
In chaotic scenes, the government then rescinded its promise of a free vote; and whipped its MPs to vote against the amended motion.
Several cabinet ministers who have warned about the risks of a no-deal Brexit, including Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd, appeared to abstain, but the government still lost the vote, by 321 votes to 278 – a majority of 43.
This would now require the Commons to pass a new vote, expected on Thursday, which will authorise May to go back to the EU and seek an extension to Article 50 — the legal mechanism for Britain's exit from the union.
May said there was a "clear majority" against a no-deal Brexit but the "legal default" was that the UK would leave without a deal on March 29 if no deal is reached unless that is legally changed with another vote and EU ratification.
"The legal default in UK and EU law remains that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless something else is agreed. The onus is now on every one of us in this House to find out what that is," May said in her statement soon after another long Brexit day in the Commons.
She also warned that any extension to the Brexit deadline will be pointless unless the House also set out a plan for the kind of deal it can support.
MPs also voted by 374 to 164 to reject a plan to delay the UK's departure from the EU until May 22, so that there can be what its supporters call a "managed no-deal" Brexit.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that Parliament must now take control of the Brexit process and his party will work across the House of Commons to seek a compromise solution.
He said: "In the last 24 hours Parliament has decisively rejected both her [May] deal and no deal.
"While an extension of Article 50 is now inevitable, responsibility for that extension lies solely and squarely at the Prime Minister's door."
All eyes will now be on a vote on Thursday, which is most likely expected to seek an extension to the time available for the UK to negotiate a new divorce arrangement with the EU.
This would have to be ratified by the EU and the length of extension will become the next focus on both sides. However, how the EU will react to an extension request remains unclear at this stage, given that it is preparing for its own EU elections towards the end of May.
The EU side has expressed dismay at the agreement being rejected by Britain for a second time since the last vote in January and said it would need "a credible justification" before agreeing to any extension.
Unless agreed otherwise, Britain leaving the EU by March 29 remains the default Brexit option by law.
The March-end deadline had kicked in when the UK triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty following a referendum in favour of Brexit by nearly 52 per cent to 48 per cent in June 2016.
Unless MPs are able to rule out leaving by March 29 without any exit strategy or agreed terms, the UK is set to crash out of the bloc leading to deep uncertainties for businesses relying on cross-border arrangements.