Bitter divisions over Brexit at the heart of Theresa May’s government were dramatically laid bare as discipline broke down and Cabinet ministers openly defied the Prime Minister.
Four pro-Remain members of the cabinet and eight middle-ranking ministers abstained in the 43-vote defeat on no deal and another, Sarah Newton, resigned after voting against the government.
Explaining her decision to resign as Work and Pensions minister, Truro and Falmouth MP Sarah Newton said: “At the last general election I was given a mandate by my constituents to deliver Brexit, with an orderly transition to a new, close and special relationship with the EU – to deliver Brexit with a deal, not a no-deal Brexit.
“I believe the Withdrawal Agreement and the Future Political Declaration deliver on that manifesto pledge and will continue to support it.
“Today, I resigned from the government so that I could vote for a motion that honours my commitment to my constituents, to leave the EU with a deal.
“Like many of my constituents, I have been inspired by the personal courage and resilience of the Prime Minister and will continue to support her Herculean effort to secure enough support from across the House to leave the EU with a deal.”
A further 17 pro-Remain Tory backbenchers, nearly all former government ministers, also voted against the Prime Minister, as the PM’s Brexit vote misery continued in the Commons.
The backbench rebels included grandees Ken Clarke, the Father of the House, former cabinet minister Justine Greening and Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, usually a serial loyalist.
At the same time, several pro-Leave cabinet ministers voted in favour of a move by Tory Brexiteers on the so-called “Malthouse Compromise” proposing “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop.
Later hardline Brexiteers reacted with fury as Downing Street took no action against the ministerial abstainers, having appeared to give them licence to flout a three-line whip on such a major issue.
The gang of four pro-Remain Cabinet abstainers were the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Business Secretary Greg Clark, Justice Secretary David Gauke and Scotland Secretary David Mundell.
Mr Clark said: “It has been completely consistent with Government policy to date that we should not leave on March 29 without a deal.
“And what we now have tomorrow is the ability to carry that forward. We acted completely in accordance with long-standing Government policy.”
Defending his rebellion, Mr Mundell said: “I’ve always opposed a no-deal Brexit. The House made its view clear by agreeing the Spelman amendment, I didn’t think it was right for me to oppose that.
“The PM has my full support in her objective of leaving the EU with a deal to deliver an orderly Brexit.”
They were joined by the energy minister Claire Perry, who attends cabinet, six mainly long-serving ministers of state and the Solicitor General Robert Buckland, deputy to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
The six were foreign office minister Alistair Burt, defence minister Tobias Ellwood, health minister Stephen Hammond, business minister Richard Harrington, digital minister Margot James and education minister Anne Milton.
All the ministers who abstained are strongly pro-Remain and most have made little secret of their opposition to a no-deal Brexit in recent months.
Alistair Burt, a government survivor going back to John Major’s government and seen as a safe pair of hands, has been one of the Government’s most vocal pro-Eruopean ministers.
Stephen Hammond only recently returned to the Government after a spell on the back benches in which he was one of a dozen pro-Remain rebels who inflicted a damaging defeat on the PM in a Commons vote on Brexit in December 2017.
“Tonight the Government whips asked me to vote against the motion, as amended, to reject ‘no deal’,” said Mr Hammond.
“I could not do this as I regard ‘no deal’ as a disaster. Therefore I abstained, despite being a Government minister.”
Six Cabinet ministers – Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Gavin Williamson, Penny Mordaunt and Alun Cairns – voted for the “Malthouse Compromise”, which was strongly backed by the hardline Brexit European Research Group of Conservative MPs.
With the exception of Alun Cairns, the Welsh Secretary, all these Cabinet ministers have Tory leadership ambitions and were seen as having backed the move to win support from pro-Brexit party activists when the battle to succeed Theresa May officially gets underway.
The backbenchers who voted against the Government in the 43-vote defeat were: Guto Bebb (Aberconwy), Richard Benyon (Newbury), Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford), Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe), Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon), George Freeman (Mid Norfolk), Justine Greening (Putney), Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield), Sam Gyimah (East Surrey), Phillip Lee (Bracknell), Oliver Letwin (West Dorset), Paul Masterton (East Renfrewshire), Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth), Mark Pawsey (Rugby), Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury), Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex), Edward Vaizey (Wantage).