How May???s Brexit deal laid bare Tories??? deep divisions over Europe

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Chaotic scenes in parliament exposed party splits and a government falling apart

Theresa May addresses MPs in the Commons
Theresa May addresses the Commons on Wednesday night. Photograph: Mark Duffy/AP

Throughout yet another neuralgic day of Brexit debate at Westminster, the deep divisions in the Conservative party were again on excruciating display.

Collective responsibility has long been suspended, as shifting groups of ministers and backbenchers pursue their own favoured Brexit outcome. But the chaotic votes of Wednesday night smacked of a government falling apart.

First, six cabinet ministers most notable for their leadership ambitions ??? Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt, Alun Cairns, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Sajid Javid ??? supported the Malthouse compromise, a policy that would involve junking the deal their own government had spent two years negotiating.

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Brexit no-deal vote: a brief timeline of chaos

7pm Caroline Spelman declines to move her amendment aimed at taking a no-deal Brexit off the table for good - but Yvette Cooper, one of the other signatories, moves it instead. 

7.16pm MPs back the amendment by 312 votes to 308, defeating the government. 

7.21pm Word gets out that the government now plans to whip against its main no-deal motion because it has been amended to rule out no-deal in all circumstances. Rumours begin to fly of ministers being ready to resign to defy the whip. 

7.33pm MPs reject the Malthouse compromise - an amendment in favour of a managed no-deal Brexit - by 374 votes to 164.

7.42pm Tory whips attempt to force MPs to vote against the amended motion they had effectively already backed. A number of cabinet ministers now reported to be abstaining. 

7.49pm May is defeated again - with the margin of loss increasing from four to 43. 

7.55pm May tells MPs that if they do not back a deal soon she will have to seek a long article 50 extension. 

8.01pm Names emerge of government ministers - including Amber Rudd and David Gauke - who abstained on the vote, amid continuing rumours that they could be forced to resign. 

8.09pm Sarah Newton, a junior pensions minister, resigns after defying the whip to vote against the government.

Photograph: HO/AFP

And then a separate group of cabinet ministers, David Mundell, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke, abstained in the face of a three-line whip, rather than vote against the amended motion taking no deal off the table.

Sources close to the group later claimed that when ministers gathered for an informal cabinet meeting shortly before the votes, neither the chief whip, Julian Smith, nor Theresa May herself were aware of the risk of a defeat.

The European Research Group???s Jacob Rees-Mogg later called for the abstainers to resign or be sacked. ???Collective responsibility requires ministers to support government policy or to resign. It is a basic constitutional point,??? he said.

Several more junior ministers opted to vote for the motion, in defiance of the whips. One, Sarah Newton, a junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, immediately resigned.

A grim-faced Smith was spotted shortly afterwards on the corridor next to the whips??? office, consulting with May???s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.

The PM???s chief Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, who last month let slip in a Brussels bar her plan of presenting MPs with the alternative of backing her deal or facing a long delay to Brexit, was seen leaving parliament 45 minutes after the vote.

The language of both sides has become increasingly strident, as the deadline for leaving the EU has approached. One MP described the prime minister???s deal during Tuesday???s debate as a ???turd???.

The Brexiter Bernard Jenkin responded to Wednesday???s fresh humiliation for the government by blaming ???anti-Brexit MPs???, and calling it ???a sad day for democracy???.

Mark Francois, one of the cabal of Brexiter backbenchers who have made themselves freely available to commentate on the prime minister???s travails in recent days, insisted on Sky News: ???I was in the army; I???m not trained to lose.???

Theresa May says clear majority against no-deal Brexit ??? video

Ben Bradley, the Brexiter MP for Mansfield who voted for May???s deal, said: ???We have just betrayed the promise we made to the electorate. I am angry, quite emotional to be honest.

Q&A

Which Tory MPs defied the government on the no-deal Brexit vote?

17 Tory MPs voted against the government 
Guto Bebb
Kenneth Clarke
Justine Greening
Phillip Lee
Sarah Newton
Sir Nicholas Soames
Richard Benyon
Jonathan Djanogly
Dominic Grieve
Oliver Letwin
Mark Pawsey
Edward Vaizey
Nick Boles
George Freeman
Sam Gyimah
Paul Masterton
Antoinette Sandbach

30 Tory MPs abstained
Bim Afolami
Robert Buckland
Alistair Burt
Greg Clark
Alberto Costa
Stephen Crabb
Tobias Ellwood
Vicky Ford
Mike Freer
David Gauke
Richard Graham
Damian Green
Stephen Hammond
Richard Harrington
Oliver Head
Peter Heaton-Jones
Simon Hoare
Nigel Huddlestone
Margot James
Jo Johnson
Eleanor Laing
Jeremy Lefroy
Anne Milton
David Mundell
Claire Perry
Victoria Prentis
Amber Rudd
Keith Simpson
Caroline Spelman
Gary Streeter

???It is incredibly difficult to justify that we said we were going to leave on the 29th. Parliament just said we are not going to leave, effectively. I think tomorrow we will vote to extend article 50.

???This is the reason I voted for the deal yesterday, because I thought this was going to happen today. But I am just shocked that it has and I???ve just seen ministerial colleagues come out of that lobby voting to take no deal off the table to prevent us from leaving.

???The trust in government is evaporating. We have got to the point where if cabinet ministers can???t vote for a long-term government position on Brexit on a three-line whip they have to go, frankly. If May doesn???t [sack them] I think we are in total freefall.???

Bradley added: ???The prime minister needs to lead, frankly and show that there are consequences for defying the whip.???

Simon Clarke, another Brexiter, said he was ???angry and bewildered at having a gun to my head for a wretched deal. There was real anger in the house tonight ??? it is galling beyond words.???

George Freeman, who abstained on the amended motion, defying the government???s orders, said the party was heading for a general election.

???We lost three MPs last month, we lost 30 MPs in the last election. This is only going in one direction and we need to start to prepare for that,??? he told the BBC.

Despite the thumping defeat of the Malthouse compromise, which was rejected by a majority of 210 votes, the ERG???s lieutenants appeared unbowed. Steve Baker urged the prime minister not to bring back her deal for a third meaningful vote in the coming days.

One ERG MP, Andrew Bridgen, said May could still ignore parliament and pursue a no-deal Brexit. On the ministers who abstained, he said May ???should have sacked them weeks ago???.

Also clearly evident as Wednesday???s chaos unfolded was the horror with which some Conservative MPs view the damage inflict on the reputation of their own party by the Brexit crisis.

The junior minister Sam Gyimah asked the environment secretary, Michael Gove, who wound up the debate for the government, ???the overwhelming view of business is that no deal should be taken off the table.

???Given that those of us on the government benches know that the success of our party and our country is based on backing the job creators and the wealth creators, how does he think the Conservative party of the 1980s would look at our response to business at the moment????

When David Cameron suspended collective cabinet responsibility at the outset of the EU referendum campaign, he fondly imagined his colleagues could all be brought back together again a few weeks later.

But almost three years on, the bitter divisions opened up during that campaign have solidified and the Conservative party is now divided into fiercely opposed tribes.

When Anna Soubry quit the Tories last month to join the breakaway Independent Group, she warned that, ???the right wing, the hardline anti-EU awkward squad that have destroyed every leader for the last 40 years, are now running the Conservative party from top to toe. They are the Conservative party.???

Some of her more remain-minded colleagues, perhaps partly emboldened by the departure of Soubry and two other Tory MPs, are now fighting back ??? and the result has been civil war.