British MPs will vote on whether or not to rule out a 'no-deal' Brexit on Wednesday, after the Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal deal was rejected by a margin of 149 in the House of Commons on Tuesday night.  MPs rejected last minute pleas from the Prime Minister that “Brexit could be lost,” if her deal was defeated, after the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said that despite legally binding changes to the EU withdrawal deal, the legal risk of the UK being locked in an indefinite backstop with the EU remained "unchanged".

Speaking after the vote, May – her voice hoarse from a cold – told MPs that while she remained committed to delivering on Brexit, it was her belief that the best way to leave was in an orderly way and that there was a majority of MPs who shared her opinion on this. Conservative MPs would therefore be given a free vote on the motion that “this House declines to approve leaving without a deal".

“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,” she said, adding that the UK faced “unenviable,” choices that “must be faced".

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn once again pressed for a general election and for the Labour party to be given that opportunity to take over negotiations with the EU. The party has continued to stop short of calling for a second referendum.

No extension?

European Commission President Donald Tusk expressed his regret at the result of the vote, and said that the EU had done everything possible to reach an agreement. “If there is a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London," he said.

He also noted that even if the UK voted to rule out a no deal and requested an extension to Article 50, a delay was not a given, as it would have to be considered by the remaining 27 EU members. "The EU 27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions will need to be ensured,” he said.

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Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator on Brexit said the EU had done everything it could to help get the deal over the line. “The impasse can only be solved in the UK. Our no-deal preparations are now more important than ever," he said.

“Political decision”

The vote came at the end of a heated day of debate following the publication of Cox’s opinion, when May repeatedly appealed to MPs to back her “legally binding deal".  "We could end up in a situation where we have no Brexit at all,” she said. While, Cox called on MPs to back the deal, insisting it was a “political decision" for MPs to make, MPs across the political spectrum made plain their reservations with the deal.

Crucially, the influential European Research Group of MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party made clear they would not support the Prime Minister's deal.

If MPs opt to rule out a 'no-deal' Brexit on Wednesday, a third vote will take place on Thursday at which they will be able to push for a delay to Britain’s exit to the EU, due to take place in just over two weeks time.

Backstop issue

In the crucial vote on the wider withdrawal deal in Parliament, the issue of the so-called Irish backstop has taken centre stage.

The backstop is an effective insurance policy that would put the UK in a temporary customs union with the EU to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland if there was a breaking down in talks in the future. This backstop will help maintain an open border there. It would also require the UK to remain aligned with specific EU rules on a number of sectors.

Complicating the situation have been the various objections of different political groupings in the UK: While the government is adamant it wants to exit the customs union, the right-wing European Research Group of MPs have all along wanted a guaranteed legal means for the UK to exit the backstop unilaterally to avoid becoming “trapped” in indefinite customs arrangement, which would prevent the UK from negotiating other trade deals.

However, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland won’t allow for any differences between the rules that Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), and Northern Ireland will be subjected to, which means the suggestion from the European Commission that they could allow Great Britain to exit the backstop unilaterally but not Northern Ireland has not been an option either.

On Monday, May flew to the French city of Strasbourg to hold talks with Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and in a joint press conference spelt out "legally binding" changes. These include a joint “interpretive instrument” stating that the EU could not act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely. If they did break the good faith, Britain would be able to challenge them through arbitration and could suspend the backstop. There’s also a joint statement with a legal commitment that the two sides would work to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of next year, and there’s a unilateral declaration from the UK that there could be nothing to stop the UK from instigating measures to get out of the backstop if the EU didn’t act in good faith.

"Having an insurance policy to guarantee that there will never be a hard border in Northern Ireland is absolutely right…But if we ever have to use that insurance policy, it cannot become a permanent arrangement and it is not the template for our future relationship,” said May. However, speaking at a Parliamentary select committee, Britain’s Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay acknowledged that there had been no changes to the text of the agreement itself.