The defeat leaves May’s government in jeopardy and U.K. politics in crisis, with deep uncertainty about the next steps for Brexit. MPs rejected a no-deal scenario in a vote last month, but have so far shied away from taking steps to actually prevent it from happening.
In a late night agreement with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday, May achieved a series of “legally-binding” additions to the deal that was originally negotiated in November last year. These were aimed at reassuring Brexiteers on her backbenches that the U.K. would not be stuck in the controversial Northern Ireland backstop in perpetuity.
But her Attorney General Geoffrey Cox — a member of the negotiating team and the government’s chief law officer — delivered a legal opinion on the deal which proved fatal to May’s chances of getting it through the Commons. He confirmed that the U.K. did not have a unilateral right to exit the backstop, which led the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party to conclude they would not support the deal.