Theresa May suffered a humiliating series of blows on Tuesday as the government was found in contempt of Parliament for the first time in history and MPs backed a rebel amendment to her key Brexit legislation.
During a day of high political drama the pound fell at one point to its lowest level against the dollar this year as MPs voted 311 to 293 in favour of finding the government in contempt.
The defeat means the government will now have to publish the legal advice given to Cabinet ministers on the Brexit deal – despite insisting it would not be in the national interest to do so.
The DUP – which props up May’s minority government – joined opposition parties in voting against the Tories, but a Downing Street source insisted the confidence and supply deal was still in operation.
The unprecedented defeat was compounded when the government lost another key vote on the power MPs would have if May’s Brexit deal is voted down next Tuesday.
That result – which could prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit – saw the pound rise back to where it started the day, rounding off a rollercoaster day for sterling.
With the fragility of the government’s parliamentary majority laid bare, May opened a five-day debate on her plan for how the UK leaves the EU, well-aware an even more significant defeat is on the horizon.
Speaking from the dispatch box, the Prime Minister appealed for those on all sides of the Brexit debate to back her deal, claiming it would protect UK jobs and security.
She said: “We can shut our eyes to these hard truths and carry on debating between these extremes for months to come, or accept that the only solution that will endure is one that addresses the concerns of those who voted Leave, while reassuring those who voted Remain.
“This argument has gone on long enough, it is corrosive to our politics, and life depends on compromise.”
Reflecting on her personal journey, May added: “I have spent nearly two years negotiating this deal. I have lost valued colleagues along the way. I have faced fierce criticism from both sides.
“If I had banged the table, walked out of the room and at the end of the process delivered the very same deal that is before us today some might say I’d done a better job. But I didn’t play to gallery, I focused on getting a deal, that honours the referendum, sets us on course for a bright future and I did so through painstaking hard work.”
MPs debated long into the night in the first of five sessions set aside for the Brexit deal, culminating with a vote on Tuesday December 11.
It is still not clear what would happen if the proposed agreement is voted down by Parliament, but an amendment put forward by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve suggests the possibility of ‘no deal’ is now less likely.
If May’s Brexit plan is voted down, the government would have to come back to Parliament with an alternative plan within 21 days and it could then be changed by MPs – a growing number of whom favour a Norway-style relationship which would include Single Market membership.