Brexit: Prepare for General Election, Prime Minister May warned after historical Commons vote defeat

A Leaver and a pro-European demonstrator argue during protests opposite the Houses of Parliament in London
AP

A Leaver and a pro-European demonstrator argue during protests opposite the Houses of Parliament in London
AP

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JOE MURPHY, EVENING STANDARD|AIWA! NO!|A general election is “on the way”, Cabinet ministers were warning today in the wake of last night’s crushing defeat of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.

A police officer extinguishes a flag that was set alight by pro-Brexit protestors outside the Houses of Parliament
PA

A police officer extinguishes a flag that was set alight by pro-Brexit protestors outside the Houses of Parliament
PA

Though enfeebled, Theresa May was expected to win a confidence vote in the Commons tonight, with the help of the same Northern Irish DUP allies and Conservatives in the hardline European Research Group who united to crush her withdrawal agreement.

But the Tory truce was looking fragile, with some senior ministers urging Mrs May privately to make a break with the party’s Right wing by tearing up her “red lines” on Brexit for the sake of a cross-party agreement.

One Cabinet minister predicted a “general election is on the way” because the Government faced the likelihood of being stripped of its ability to control the House of Commons timetable and legislation. 

In key developments this morning:

  • EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier blamed Mrs May squarely for her own defeat, saying it was “based on the red lines of the British Government”. He warned of a growing danger of no deal.
  • Chancellor Philip Hammond discussed a possible delay to Brexit and a cross-party deal in a call to business leaders  — apparently contradicting the Prime Minister’s plans.
  • Ireland said it would not discuss alternatives to the backstop that angered the Democratic Unionist Party and many Tories. Deputy premier Simon Coveney said: “I don’t think the EU is in any mood to change the withdrawal agreement significantly at all.” 
  • Labour pitched into civil war as Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to back a second referendum was challenged by leading Labour MPs backing the People’s Vote campaign. 
  • A business leader said Cabinet ministers were giving no clue what would happen next. Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said after a phone call with the Chancellor: “There was very little guidance on what happens next.”
  • Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, said Europe would “directly engage with the House of Commons” to bypass the Government and get a deal.

Mrs May’s deal was rejected by a record 432 votes to 202 last night, a shortfall of 230 marking the biggest defeat ever inflicted on a government. Some 118 Tories voted against the Prime Minister’s deal.

Cabinet Ministers were deeply divided on how Mrs May should attempt to broker a deal. 

One predicted at least “one or two more votes” on the withdrawal agreement that was rejected last night, providing the EU agreed on improvements to the backstop. But senior EU figures flatly ruled out that prospect today. 

The senior minister said the stakes could be raised “by crystallising” threats of a second referendum or of Article 50 being rescinded. Another senior minister said the Prime Minister should “reluctantly relinquish” red lines that were erected to please the hardline Eurosceptics in the Tory party, such as insisting on the right to strike trade deals outside a customs union with the EU bloc. 

The minister said the process might result in “the pain of severing our Right [and] finding the centre ground”.

Two Cabinet ministers admitted candidly in private they had “no idea” how the impasse would be resolved.

Labour sources sensed Mrs May was being sucked into an impossible dilemma and indicated Mr Corbyn would table a second confidence vote on Monday when the Prime Minister is due to present her Plan B to the House of Commons. 

A senior parliamentarian involved in cross-party plots to empower the Commons to call the shots on Brexit agreed that the collapse of Mrs May’s Government was now a risk. 

“If Parliament gives an instruction that the executive is unwilling to accept, the outcome could well be a general election,” the former minister said.

Lord O’Donnell, a former head of the civil service, said officials would already be preparing for a general election. He said: “Even though the expectation is that the Government will win, they need to be ready for that period where if that motion is carried, then there is 14 days to think about trying to form another government.” 

Lord O’Donnell suggested there was no prospect of any party leader being able to form a new government in the current parliament.

Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said that if Mrs May won the vote of confidence, she would seek to hold discussions with senior parliamentarians on the way forward.Countdown to Brexit: 72 days until Britain leaves the EU

“The Prime Minister will then not necessarily be looking for new ideas that no one has thought of before, but actually seeking a consensus, a fresh initiative to find a solution that is negotiable with the European Union and that would command a majority in the House of Commons,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“The Prime Minister has been clear that she wants to talk to senior parliamentarians about what would command a majority and that is what we will be doing over the coming days.”

Mrs Leadsom acknowledged that there had been no contact with Mr Corbyn but said the Labour leader needed to come forward with constructive proposals. “I don’t think she has written him off at all but he needs to come to the table and tell us what he wants to do,” she said.

“He has not put forward any specific constructive proposal and that is a problem, which is why the Prime Minister will be engaging right across the House with those who do have very sincerely held views but want to constructively deliver on what the vast majority of parliamentarians voted for.”

In a phone call with business chiefs, Mr Hammond reassured them that a no-deal departure would be blocked and also discussed the possibility of a delay to Article 50, which the Standard last week revealed was now on the cards.

According to the Financial Times, he said: “We have to reach out to MPs in the Commons first. There is a large majority in the Commons that is opposed to no deal.” 

His words, which were not denied by Treasury sources, appeared to contradict Downing Street which wants to push ahead with Mrs May’s terms and is refusing to rule out no deal.

Giving evidence to the Treasury Committee this morning, Bank of England governor Mark Carney said a rebound in sterling after last night’s vote is a sign markets believe Brexit could be delayed. He added: “The markets, like the country, is looking to Parliament for direction and one could expect continued volatility.”

Mrs May’s former de facto deputy Damian Green urged her to make compromises to avoid crashing out of the EU on no-deal terms. “That will require all of us to make some compromises,” he urged.

Mr Verhofstadt complained “that the mess in British politics is again imported into European politics”. He said members of the European Parliament  would allow a delay to Brexit but not beyond the European elections at the end of May.

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