Theresa May will not change course on Brexit despite an embarrassing Commons defeat, one of her ministers has said.
Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom said that while the reverse was “disappointing”, the government was “continuing with our Plan A” – securing legally binding changes to the Irish border backstop.
She was speaking the day after MPs voted against the prime minister’s approach to Britain’s EU exit in a symbolic but damaging defeat.
The loss happened when Mrs May brought forward a motion to reiterate support for the Brexit approach MPs agreed last month – noting that negotiations between the UK and the EU over the backstop were ongoing.
But she was defeated by 303 votes to 258 after failing to win the support of Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG), who feared her motion would also take leaving the EU without a deal off the table.
Last month, MPs agreed to reopen negotiations on the backstop, but also voted in favour of a non-binding cross-party amendment rejecting a no-deal divorce.
Asked for her reaction to the loss, Ms Leadsom said: “We are continuing with our Plan A, which is to deal with the issues which Parliament raised two weeks ago – making very clear that what they want to see is alternative arrangements to the backstop, that doesn’t mean the UK can be trapped in a backstop permanently against our will.
“That is what the government is continuing to do.”
However, Ms Leadsom said she was concerned the result would “allow them [the EU] to pretend that there is some lack of clarity about what the UK wants”.
She continued: “So my message for them is that it’s quite clear that two weeks ago Parliament indicated its support for a deal where we sort out in a legally-binding way alternative arrangements to the backstop and that then Parliament can support the deal.
“That remains the government’s central view and that’s what we’re working towards.”
The backstop is an insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event that Britain and the EU cannot agree a free trade deal in time.
It is the key stumbling block standing in the way of Mrs May getting a Brexit deal through Parliament in time for the end of March, when Britain is due to leave.
As the clock ticks ever closer to 29 March, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looms ever larger.
Opponents of such an outcome warn it would cause untold disruption to numerous aspects of British life, but supporters say it would be preferable to Mrs May’s deal and would give Britain the chance to make a “clean” break from Brussels.
The PM’s latest defeat has sparked a fresh round of recriminations about the prospect of no deal – and thrown the party’s split over Brexit into sharp focus in the process.
Conservative MP and former attorney general Dominic Grieve hit out at the ERG, telling Sky News they “appear to be entirely untroubled” about the potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Grieve said he thinks this will cause “chaos and real damage” and added: “I’m just not prepared to go there under any circumstances.”
Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt made clear he would not be willing to accept leaving without a deal, writing on Twitter: “We are not leaving without a deal. If you want to leave, you’d better agree one. In the next fortnight would help.”
Business minister Richard Harrington criticised the ERG in the wake of the vote, accusing its members of “treachery”.
But ERG deputy chairman Steve Baker rejected the criticism and described the furore over the vote as a “storm in a teacup”.
Brexiteer MPs who abstained were not prepared to be associated with the “catastrophic and foolish negotiating error” of ruling out no-deal, he said.
“I really do rather object to being called ‘hardline’ when what we are doing is trying to deliver an exit with a deal which works for everybody, with a transition period,” Mr Baker told Today.
“We are making enormous compromises to work across the party.”