British lawmakers on Thursday voted to seek a delay to the March 29 deadline for the UK to exit the European Union (EU) by 412 votes to 202, but rejected an amendment to the motion that sought to hold another referendum during the delayed period.
British Prime Minister Theresa May must now seek a one-off extension from the EU, initially until June 30, because, according to the motion passed by the House of Commons, any time frame beyond that would mean the UK joining in the European Parliament elections scheduled for the end of May.
May is now expected to focus on pushing her controversial withdrawal agreement through for a last-ditch Commons vote next Tuesday, before she heads for a European Council meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to try and meet EU demands of a 'good enough' reason to consider an extension to the Article 50 Brexit mechanism.
"MPs have voted in favour of the government's motion to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit beyond March 29. The government will now seek permission from the EU to delay Brexit beyond this point," a government statement said. "The motion states that Article 50 will be extended until June 30, if MPs approve the Prime Minister's deal by March 20. If an agreement on a deal is not reached by the March 20, the government will seek a more substantial extension, but the EU would have to agree to this and set the terms," it added.
In the lead-up to the main vote on the motion seeking a Brexit delay from the EU, the MPs voted on a series of amendments tabled by different sections of the Commons in an attempt to influence the course of Brexit.
It began with an amendment by the newly-formed Independent Group MP Sarah Wollaston seeking a delay to Brexit for a new referendum, which was rejected emphatically by 334 votes against as opposed to 85 in favour. The UK had voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016.
Another key amendment was tabled by opposition Labour Party MPs Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper, seeking to wrest control of the Brexit process from the Conservative Party-led government with a vote designed "to enable the House of Commons to find a way forward that can command majority support".
It was aimed at enabling Parliament to debate the next steps on Brexit next Wednesday, but was defeated very narrowly by two votes—314 votes to 312—marking an important moral victory for May to keep control of Brexit.
Yet another amendment, tabled by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, sought to reject May's strategy for the Brexit negotiations by seeking to "provide parliamentary time for this House to find a majority for a different approach", which also failed to pass, with only 302 votes for and 318 votes against.
A final complex vote, which sought to give Commons Speaker John Bercow the chance to block the British PM from bringing her twice-rejected withdrawal agreement back for a Commons vote next week, was pulled at the last minute, leaving the withdrawal agreement open to one last shot at a Parliament vote next week.
The latest vote follows a decisive rejection by Parliament on Wednesday night to rule out leaving the EU without any deal, in two separate votes.
Meanwhile, May will also make a third attempt to get her withdrawal deal to pass through, after it was rejected by huge margins in two previous votes in January and then again earlier this week.
"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," May told the Parliament on Wednesday night.
"But let me be clear, such a short technical extension is only likely to be on offer if we have a deal in place," she said, in a kind of ultimatum to MPs to reconsider their stance on voting for her Brexit deal with the "legally binding" changes to the controversial Irish backstop clause.
The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which twice refused to back May's deal in the Commons over fears of the backstop dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, is due to hold talks with the government to see if a solution could be found, allowing its MPs to support the PM in a future vote on her withdrawal.
A DUP spokesperson said they wanted to find "a sensible deal for the entire UK and one that works for our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland".
Any breakthrough with the DUP could effectively translate into more support from hard Brexiteers for May's controversial withdrawal deal, which she insists remains the only viable option on the table as the Brexit deadline looms.
Meanwhile, on the EU side, European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted he would "appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it".
A European Commission spokesperson said, "There are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal. The EU is prepared for both. To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal—you have to agree to a deal. We have agreed a deal with the prime minister and the EU is ready to sign it."