MPs on both sides of parliament described the situation as a democratic and constitutional crisis. One Conservative MP, Trudy Harrison, said she was torn between calling it a “pig’s ear, a dog’s dinner or a cat’s arse”.
Proceedings in the House of Commons threatened to descend into farce on Wednesday evening, as the government urged its MPs to oppose a motion that it had argued in favour of all day.
In the end the Commons voted, 321 to 278, to reject the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a divorce deal.
It does not change the legal reality, that Brexit will happen by force of law on March 29 unless the government and parliament act to prevent it.
However Prime Minister Theresa May accepted the vote meant that, unless her twice-rejected deal is somehow passed within a fortnight, the alternatives were now to seek a long delay to Brexit or even a second Brexit referendum that could kill off Brexit altogether.
If the government asks the EU for an extension to the Brexit deadline, all 27 other EU nations must approve that extension.
“The House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken,” May said after the vote.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said May had repeatedly said the choice was “between her deal and no deal”, but the past 24 hours in parliament had ruled out both options. A delay to Brexit was now inevitable, he said.
“Parliament must now take control of the situation,” he said. “Let us as a House of Commons work now to find a solution to deal with the crisis facing this country … that is what we were elected to do.”
The divorce deal, technically the Withdrawal Agreement agreed between the UK government and the EU in November, was designed to settle debts, separate EU and UK laws, keep the Ireland border free of new checkpoints and provide a long, smooth transition into the post-Brexit world for business and industry while a new trade and customs relationship is negotiated.
But the Commons has voted it down twice.
Wednesday’s vote was on a government motion to “decline to approve leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement”. It also noted that “leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement”.
But in the lead up to the vote, parliament narrowly voted to amend the motion so it simply said parliament “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement”.
After the amendment passed, in chaotic scenes in Westminster corridors, the government instructed its MPs to vote against the motion in its new form.
Theresa May herself voted against it.
The motion nevertheless passed. Eleven Cabinet ministers reportedly did not vote, and might be required to resign after resisting “whipped” orders from the government.
The debate had begun more calmly, with most MPs in furious agreement that a “no deal” Brexit would be bad for the country.
Environment minister Michael Gove – standing in for May, who has literally lost her voice to a bad cold – began the debate in support of the motion, saying that choosing to leave the EU without a divorce deal would mean “significant economic political and constitutional challenges”.
Gove reportedly ended up voting against the motion.
He earlier warned that a no-deal Brexit would mean new tariffs on its exports to the EU, with the highest on food, threatening the “livelihoods, economy and social health” of rural communities who depended on sheep and beef farming.
He also warned of the “political strains and pressures” of a no-deal Brexit, which he said was not what Leave voters had voted for.
And he said there would be “constitutional challenges” in Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which had voted to Remain in the EU.
The latter would likely have to return under direct rule, he said, which would be a “grave step [and] very hard to return from”.
Shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer said the choice “between bad or even worse is not a meaningful choice”.
“The mantra that it’s [May’s] deal or no deal needs to be buried tonight,” he said.
Nick Miller is Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age