Theresa May is urging MPs to back a three-month Brexit postponement or face the threat of a much longer delay, in a desperate bid to persuade her pro-Leave rebels to back her withdrawal agreement next week.
After a cabinet gang of four and several more ministers abstained and 17 backbenchers voted against the government in a Commons vote ruling out no deal, the prime minister has issued an ultimatum to Tory Brexiteers.
In what many MPs see as a last roll of the dice for the beleaguered PM and her Brexit deal, she is effectively challenging her rebel MPs who have now defeated her deal twice: Back me or risk losing Brexit altogether.
In the third showdown on Brexit this week, MPs will debate a motion telling the rebels that if the Commons votes for her withdrawal deal by next Wednesday the government will seek to extend Article 50 until June 30.
But the government’s motion also warns MPs that if her EU withdrawal deal is defeated for a third time next week European leaders meeting at a summit in Brussels on Thursday are likely to demand a much longer Brexit delay, possibly up to two years.
The latest Commons debate comes 24 hours after chaotic scenes in the Commons when Mrs May lost control over her feuding party and was left powerless and unable to sack her ministerial rebels when they inflicted another humiliating defeat.
One middle-ranking minister, Sarah Newton, resigned after voting against the government and pro-Remain cabinet ministers Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell defied the PM by abstaining as she was defeated by 43 votes.
Eight more pro-Remain ministers – Robert Buckland, Alistair Burt, Tobias Ellwood, Stephen Hammond, Richard Harrington, Margot James, Anne Milton and Claire Perry – abstained but have so far all escaped the sack or any other punishment.
A further 17 backbenchers, mostly former ministers and including Ken Clarke, Justine Greening and Nicolas Soames – voted against the government, which lost the key vote by 321 votes to 278.
After the vote, which left the PM facing a Brexit meltdown and still suffering from a croaky voice and barely able to make herself heard, she told MPs the new motion would set out the fundamental choice facing the House of Commons.
If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short limited technical extension to Article 50 to provide time to pass the necessary legislation and ratify the agreement we have reached with the EU, she said.
But let me be clear, such a short technical extension is only likely to be on offer if we have a deal in place.
Therefore, the House has to understand and accept that, if it is not willing to support a deal in the coming days, and as it is not willing to support leaving without a deal on 29 March, then it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension to Article 50.
Such an extension would undoubtedly require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019.
I do not think that would be the right outcome. But the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken.
But despite the PM’s warning, Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister who is deputy chairman of the European Research Group, said the PM’s deal was rotten and claimed Brexiteers should continue to oppose it.
I’ll tell the government now, when meaningful vote three comes back I’ll see to it that we honour what we owe to them to keep voting this down however many times it’s brought back, whatever pressure we’re put under, he said.