A majority of MPs have sent a powerful signal they will not accept a “no-deal” Brexit as the government suffered a loss in the House of Commons.
Twenty Tory MPs staged a rebellion on Tuesday night to inflict a defeat for Theresa May on the Finance Bill – the first reverse for a government on such legislation since 1978.
The rebels included 17 former ministers, of which six previously served in the cabinet.
They joined forces with MPs from opposition parties to approve an amendment to the legislation, although its significance was disputed by Remain-supporting MPs and Brexiteers.
The amendment, passed by 303 votes to 296, seeks to restrict the government’s freedom to make no-deal Brexit tax changes without the “explicit consent” of parliament.
Under the terms of the amendment, the powers in the bill can only come into force if MPs have approved a Brexit deal, Article 50 has been extended, or MPs have given their backing for leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hailed Tuesday’s vote as “an important step to prevent a no-deal Brexit”, as he called on the prime minister to rule out such a scenario “once and for all”.
“It shows that there is no majority in parliament, the cabinet or the country for crashing out of the EU without an agreement,” he said.
“That is why we are taking every opportunity possible in parliament to prevent no deal.”
The majority of Mr Corbyn’s party backed the cross-party amendment, which had been tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, although three of his party’s Brexiteers voted with the government.
Ms Cooper told Sky News, despite MPs’ differing viewpoints on Mrs May’s Brexit deal, the vote showed “there is a concern that we should at least come together to rule out the worst possible option, which would be something so chaotic in March”.
During the debate on the bill, former Tory minister Sir Oliver Letwin told MPs he would be voting for the prime minister’s Brexit deal, but was voting for Ms Cooper’s amendment to prevent a “disastrous” no-deal scenario.
He raised the prospect of MPs continuing to “bring forward similar amendments” to other legislation as part of a parliamentary campaign to prevent the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable told Sky News the vote was “highly significant” and that it was “clear parliament will vote to stop no-deal happening”.
However, a government spokesman stressed the vote does not change the fact the UK is leaving the EU on 29 March.
Treasury minister Robert Jenrick also said: “To be clear, today’s amendment to the Finance Bill does not limit the ability to raise taxes in any Brexit scenario, nor does it prevent a no-deal Brexit.
“The clause merely concerned minor, technical changes to tax law. Preparedness for no deal continues – the responsible course.”
Brexiteers also dismissed the significance of the result, with Iain Duncan Smith telling Sky News the vote “doesn’t change anything” and was “really a token”.
He argued MPs have already legislated for the UK to leave the EU, with a deal or not, on 29 March.
Other Leave-supporting Tories wondered why the government had opposed what some termed a “trivial” amendment to the bill, rather than just accept the measure.
Brexit minister Steve Baker suggested it was “to deliberately advertise weakness, presumably, as a whipping tactic”, as Mrs May focuses on persuading critics to back her Brexit deal next week.
The prime minister has warned Brexiteers they risk no Brexit at all if they continue to oppose her agreement.
At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Environment Secretary Michael Gove was understood to have told fellow ministers that MPs refusing to back the Brexit deal were like “mid-50s swingers waiting for Scarlett Johansson to turn up”.
Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said: “History will take a dim view of a cabinet that presses ahead with no deal.
“We have to face the world as we find it, not as we wish it to be, and we have to deal with the facts as we find them.”
Business Secretary Greg Clark told the Commons on Tuesday that a no-deal Brexit “should not be contemplated”.
The House of Commons will resume its debate on Mrs May’s deal on Wednesday, after the prime minister dramatically pulled a pre-Christmas vote amid the expectation of a significant defeat.