MPs will vote on whether Britain will crash out of the EU with no deal after a humiliating Brexit defeat for Theresa May plunged the country into a full-blown political crisis.
Mrs May suffered a crushing defeat on Tuesday night as MPs rejected her Withdrawal Agreement for the second time, despite last-minute alterations that she had hoped would win her more support.
The defeat, by 391 votes to 242, means the Prime Minister has essentially handed control of the future direction of Brexit over to MPs, who will vote on Wednesday on whether they are willing for the UK to leave the EU without a deal on March 29.
One senior Tory MP said the British public would be exasperated with how politicians had handled this mess.
Tuesday night’s rejection saw both EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and European Council president Donald Tusk say that no-deal preparations have become more important than ever amid fears an accidental EU exit with no agreement could happen.
And, ahead of Wednesday’s vote, MPs from across parties will try and influence how Brexit develops over the next 48 hours.
Most notably, a group of hardcore Brexiteers – plus the DUP and some more moderate Tories – revealed they have signed up to an amendment tabled by former Brexit minister Steve Baker that would extend Article 50 until 10.59pm on May 22 before Britain leaves the EU without a deal.
What happens next?
The result for Mrs May was a catastrophe and leaves her with little remaining authority – and certainly not in control of what happens next.
Addressing the Commons following the vote, a croaky-voiced PM said: “Let me be clear. Voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems we face.
“The EU will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension and this House will have to answer that question.
“Does it wish to revoke Article 50? Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal, but not this deal?
“These are unenviable choices. Thanks to the decision that the House has made this evening, they are choices that must now be faced.”
The Prime Minister also revealed she has given Conservatives a free vote on Wednesday night’s motion, which reads:
“This House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework on the future relationship on March 29 2019 and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement”.
On Tuesday night, Mr Baker led moves by the ERG, the DUP and some Tory Remainers to delay Brexit until May 22. This, they say, would allow UK businesses to prepare for a new customs tariff system that would then come into force when the UK crashes out without a deal.
The move is also supported by Nicky Morgan, who said on Tuesday night that the British public is probably looking at its politicians and thinking: “What on earth are you guys up to?”
But many MPs, including Labour and the SNP, are against this and most observers expect MPs to vote against no deal. Nicola Sturgeon has called on the Prime Minister to “definitively” rule out the “catastrophe” of a no-deal Brexit.
If MPs do reject the option of a no-deal Brexit, a third vote will follow on Thursday authorising Mrs May to request an extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation process.
An extension requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 remaining member states, and Mr Juncker has warned that it cannot stretch beyond May 23 unless the UK takes part in the European Parliament elections starting on that date.
The UK is set to publish further details of its own no-deal plans – including tariff rates for imports – on Wednesday.
How did the other parties react?
Labour is still insistent that a general election is the only way to resolve the deadlock.
Jeremy Corbyn said his party would once more put forward its own proposal for a deal and repeated his demand for an election. “The Prime Minister has run down the clock and the clock has been run out on her,” he said.
“It’s time that we have a General Election and the people can choose who their Government should be.”
A Labour Party spokeswoman added: “Allowing a free vote on no deal shows Theresa May has given up any pretence of leading the country.”
Senior EU leaders have warned the result puts the prospect of a no deal Brexit high on the agenda.
Michael Barnier said the no-deal preparations “are now more important than ever before”.
A spokesman for European Council president Donald Tusk said: “We regret the outcome of tonight’s vote and are disappointed that the UK Government has been unable to ensure a majority for the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by both parties in November.
“On the EU side we have done all that is possible to reach an agreement. Given the additional assurances provided by the EU in December, January and yesterday, it is difficult to see what more we can do.
“If there is a solution to the current impasse, it can only be found in London.”
The spokesman said the EU stood by the Withdrawal Agreement and said the vote had “significantly increased the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit”, adding: “We will continue our no-deal preparations and ensure that we will be ready if such a scenario arises.
“Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 will consider it and decide by unanimity.
“The EU27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions will need to be ensured.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, said the UK had “spiralled out of control”.
He tweeted: “Brexit was about taking back control, instead the UK spiralled out of control.
Other leaders voiced their views that a no-deal Brexit is more likely and spoke of their regret on the vote’s result.