Tory rebels help limit next PM's power to shut parliament to pursue no-deal Brexit

Aubrey Allegretti and Alan McGuinness, political reporters

Britain's next prime minister will struggle to shut parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit, after an extraordinary intervention from Tory MPs.

Discipline in Theresa May's ranks appeared to break down when cabinet ministers defied orders to block the move, helping to inflict a 41-vote defeat against the government on Thursday.

Mrs May's spokesman signalled no immediate punishment, saying it was for her successor to decide whether to sack them.

Tory leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt also missed the vote, saying he mistakenly thought he had been given permission to.

MPs had tried to use the last few days of Mrs May's premiership to make it harder for the next prime minister to close parliament in the run up to Brexit on 31 October.

Labour's Hilary Benn, one of the bid's co-sponsors, declared MPs could not go "missing in action" if the country was headed for a no-deal.

Tory former minister Alistair Burt, the other co-sponsor, added it was not about whether MPs would back deal or no-deal at the time but to be "certain" that "we would actually be here".

Boris Johnson has refused to rule out making the move - known as "proroguing" parliament - to ensure Brexit happens on Halloween "do or die".

Mr Hunt has categorically denied he would employ the tactic, last used by Sir John Major in 1997 to prevent MPs debating the "cash for questions" scandal.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the vote as an "important victory" in the fight against a "disastrous no-deal".

He added: "Labour will do everything we can to prevent the next prime minister dragging us towards a no-deal Brexit."

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But the method of making proroguing harder infuriated some MPs, because it was tacked on as an amendment to new laws about Northern Ireland.

Nigel Dodds, the Democratic Unionist Party's Westminster leader, called the move "very disconcerting", while his MP colleague Ian Paisley attacked it as a "hijack".

As the vote kicked off, Chancellor Philip Hammond was spotted in Downing Street and digital minister Margot James resigned to vote against instructions and for the amendment.

The result - 315 in favour, 274 against - was helped by 17 Tory MPs who voted for the change and 30 who abstained.

Four cabinet ministers - Mr Hammond, Justice Secretary David Gauke, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart and Business Secretary Greg Clark - were among those who did not take part.

Ms James told Sky News that she thought it was time for her to "take a stand" and "ensure that parliament maintains its voice throughout this difficult period".

Mr Hammond, who is almost certain to return to the backbenches when the new PM takes over, made clear that he was supportive of efforts to stop proroguing.

"The Conservative Party has always, at its core, had a fundamental belief in the importance of strong institutions - and in a representative democracy there can be no more vital institution than it's (sic) Parliament," he wrote on Twitter.

"It should not be controversial to believe that Parliament be allowed to sit, and have a say, during a key period in our country's history."

Normally on such an important vote, MPs who break the whip would face punishment, but Mrs May's spokesman said she would deliver none.

"The prime minister is obviously disappointed that a number of ministers failed to vote in this afternoon's division," he said.

"No doubt her successor will take this into account when forming their government."