Nightmare Brexit defeat sees PM floundering to find an alternative
It was Theresa May's worst nightmare. Her proposed deal for leaving the European Union was beaten by a record 230 votes, the worst defeat for a sitting Government in parliamentary history.
Defeat was no surprise, given the shambles that Brexit has been since its inception.
The referendum was held to quell rebellion within the Tory ranks, the arguments put to the people were ill-formed and often false, May made a disastrous decision to hold a general election that left her with a minority Government hostage to fortune on all sides, and her negotiations with the EU were generally agreed to be nowhere near robust enough. Last night's humiliation was the inevitable outcome.
And her troubles continue to pile up. She faces a vote of no confidence from the Labour Party today and, if she survives, she has to come up with a Plan B by Monday.
Belatedly, she has now pledged to seek the views of opponents, also the DUP which is propping her up, and senior parliamentarians across the House and will then decide if any of their proposals stand a chance of finding favour with Brussels. If so, she will attempt to open new negotiations on a withdrawal deal. However, given the EU's implacable stance to date, she faces a tough, some might say impossible, task.
And it would go against everything she has stood for in the Brexit debate if she was to adopt Labour's demands for the UK to stay within the customs union and to take a no-deal option out of the equation.
However, it has to be admitted that Mrs May has shown immense resolution in attempting to find a way to leave Europe. She does not face opponents who are united in any sense other than in opposing her deal. Many keep saying they want a better deal, but give no indication of what that better deal should contain, never mind if it is achievable. For example, the DUP's insistence that the backstop is dropped from the agreement ignores the fact that it is virtually written in stone, such is the commitment of the other 27 EU members to it.
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That explains in part Mrs May's desperate attempts to stem some of the tide of opposition by issuing dire threats that Brexit would not happen if her deal was defeated or that defeat would hasten a united Ireland. These were the words of a Prime Minister floundering at the bottom of the barrel.
While all the debate in the past 24 hours has been about the size of the Government's defeat, the result still leaves the country, particularly the business community but also EU citizens living and working in the UK, in a quandary. As the March 29 deadline for leaving the EU comes inexorably closer, the one thing that everyone wants - certainty - remains elusive.
Given Northern Ireland's peripheral position on the edge of Europe and its dependence on its growing trade with the Republic, the business community desperately needs some framework to plan against.
For example, should firms open satellite businesses in the Republic to allow themselves to continue to trade with the EU, whatever the outcome? That is not always feasible for SMEs, which make up the vast bulk of businesses in the province.
At the moment the future picture looks like one of those ancient maps where the cartographers drew only to the horizons they could see and filled in the gaps beyond with the words 'Here be dragons'.
We are similarly ignorant of what is to come.
Last night was historic in parliamentary terms, but March 29 is the historic moment that will affect us all.