Theresa May delivered an impassioned defence of her divorce deal with the European Union late on Tuesday to start a five-day debate on the agreement, but started on the back foot after earlier suffering three humiliating defeats in the House of Commons.
Mrs May said that since the British people voted in 2016 to leave the EU, it was the “duty of this Parliament to deliver on the result” of the referendum.
Despite her entreaties, the government appeared to be on a collision course with increasingly assertive MPs.
Minutes before May rose to speak, MPs delivered a historic rebuke, finding her Conservative government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish the advice it had received from the country’s top law officer about the Brexit deal.
The reprimand, while largely symbolic, marks the first time a British government has been found in contempt of Parliament. The 311-293 vote demonstrated the fragility of Mrs May’s government, which does not have a majority in the House of Commons. An amendment by the government seeking to avoid the move was also defeated by MPs.
Labour's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer called the contempt finding “a badge of shame”.
The government said that in light of the vote it would publish the advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. He and other ministers could also face reprimands or suspension from Parliament.
The main thrust of Mr Cox’s advice is already known — the government released a 43-page document about it on Monday in a bid to fend off the contempt motion.
In another sign of the government’s weakness, MPs also passed an amendment giving Parliament more say over the government’s next steps if the Commons rejects the divorce deal in a vote set for December 11.
Many lawmakers saw the government’s defeats as developments of huge significance – a tipping point in the EU saga.
“This feels like the fall of the ancien regime,” Stewart McDonald of the Scottish National Party said, using the term applied to the crumbling political system overthrown in the French Revolution.
The deal, endorsed last month by the other 27 EU leaders, lays out the terms of Britain’s departure from the bloc on March 29 and sets the framework for future relations. Rejecting it would leave the UK facing the prospect of a chaotic no-deal Brexit, but Mrs May’s chances of winning backing for the deal appear slim.
Politicians on both sides of Britain’s EU membership debate oppose the agreement – pro-Brexit legislators because it keeps Britain bound closely to the EU, and pro-EU politicians because it erects barriers between the UK and its biggest trading partner.
“The numbers in the Houses of Parliament look pretty formidable for Theresa May,” said Alan Wager, a research associate at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. “Over 100 Conservative MPs have said they are not going to back the deal; the Labour Party have said they are not going to back the deal. So it looks like the deal won’t pass next week.”
Mrs May acknowledged the proposed deal her government negotiated and approved was not perfect, but called it “an honourable compromise”.
“We should not let the search for the perfect Brexit prevent a good Brexit,” she said.
Leaving the EU without a deal would end more than 40 years of free trade and disrupt the flow of goods and services between Britain and Europe. The Bank of England says a no-deal Brexit could plunge Britain into a severe recession, with the value of the pound falling by 25 per cent as unemployment and inflation soared.
Pro-EU lawmakers said they had made the prospect of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit less likely by securing the amendment giving Parliament more power to guide the government’s next steps if the deal is rejected.
If the agreement doesn’t win approval, the government is required to come back within 21 days and say what it plans to do. The amendment, which also was backed by two dozen Conservative lawmakers, stipulates that Parliament can change the government’s statement – effectively telling the government what to do. Since most lawmakers oppose a no-deal Brexit, they could essentially take that option off the table.
Mrs May insisted that Brexit could not, and should not, be reversed.
In an appeal to Parliament that sounded at times like her political eulogy, the prime minister defended the divorce deal against the steady criticism of louder, brasher opponents.
Mrs May said she had reached a deal with the EU “through painstaking hard work”.
“I didn’t play to the gallery,” she said. “I have never thought that politics was simply about broadcasting your opinions on the matter at hand.
“Don’t let anyone here think that there’s a better deal to be won by shouting louder,” she said.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called Mrs May’s plan “a huge and damaging failure for Britain” that came from “two years of botched negotiations”.