(BBC) — Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal deal has been rejected by MPs for a second time, throwing her Brexit strategy into further confusion.
MPs voted down her deal by 391 to 242 – a smaller defeat than when they rejected it in January.
The PM said MPs will now get a vote on whether the UK should leave the EU without a deal and, if that fails, on whether Brexit should be delayed.
She said Tory MPs will get a free vote on a no-deal Brexit.
That means they can vote with their conscience rather than following the orders of party managers.
Mrs May also told MPs the government would announce details of how the UK will manage its border with Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit on Wednesday.
If the Commons declines to approve a no-deal Brexit in a vote on Wednesday, a vote on extending Article 50, the legal mechanism taking the UK out of the EU on 29 March, will take place on Thursday, said Mrs May.
Announcing the free vote on a no-deal Brexit, she told MPs: “This is an issue of grave importance for the future of our country.
“Just like the referendum there are strongly held and equally legitimate views on both sides.
“For that reason, I can confirm that this will be a free vote on this side of the House.”
She said that the choices facing the UK were “unenviable”, but because of the rejection of her deal, “they are choices that must be faced”.
Mrs May said leaving without a deal remained the UK’s default position but Downing Street said she will tell MPs whether she will vote for no-deal when she opens Wednesday’s Commons debate on it.
The prime minister did not discuss resigning after her latest defeat because a government led by her had recently won a confidence vote in the Commons, added the PM’s spokesman.
She has no plans to return to Brussels to ask for more concessions because, as she told MPs, she still thinks her deal is the best and only one on offer, he added.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the prime minister should now call a general election.
“The government has been defeated again by an enormous majority and it must accept its deal is clearly dead and does not have the support of this House,” he told MPs.
He said a no-deal Brexit had to be “taken off the table” – and Labour would continue to push its alternative Brexit proposals. He did not mention the party’s commitment to back another referendum.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group of Brexiteer MPs, said “the problem with the deal was that it didn’t deliver on the commitment to leave the EU cleanly and that the backstop would have kept us in the customs union and de facto in the single market”.
The Tory MP, who voted against Mrs May’s deal, told BBC News: “The moral authority of 17.4 million people who voted to leave means that very few people are actually standing up and saying they want to reverse Brexit. They’re calling for a second referendum, they’re calling for delay.
“But actually very few politicians are brave enough to go out and say they want to overturn the referendum result.”
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said in a tweet: “The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. The impasse can only be solved in the UK. Our ‘no-deal’ preparations are now more important than ever before.”
A spokesman for European Council president Donald Tusk echoed that message, saying it was “difficult to see what more we can do”.
“With only 17 days left to 29 March, today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit,” added the spokesman.
The EU would consider an extension to Brexit if the UK asked for one, he added, but the 27 other EU member states would expect “a credible justification” for it.
Some 75 Conservative MPs voted against the PM’s deal, compared with 118 who voted against it in January.
The Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 MPs also voted against the deal, as did the Labour Party, SNP and other opposition parties.
Three Labour MPs – Kevin Barron, Caroline Flint and John Mann – voted for the prime minister’s deal.
A Labour Party spokeswoman said: “Allowing a free vote on no deal shows Theresa May has given up any pretence of leading the country.
“Once again, she’s putting her party’s interests ahead of the public interest.”
Mrs May had earlier warned MPs that if they did not back her “improved deal” they risked “no Brexit at all”.
But she failed to convince enough of them that concessions she had agreed at the last minute with the EU were the “legally-binding” changes to the controversial Irish backstop they had demanded when they rejected the deal by 230 votes in January.