MPs will vote later on whether to block the UK from leaving the EU without a deal on 29 March, after again rejecting the PM’s withdrawal agreement. The deal was defeated in the Commons on Tuesday evening by 149 votes.
Meanwhile the UK government has said it will cut tariffs on a range of imports from outside the EU and introduce measures to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland in a no-deal scenario.
On Wednesday morning the government announced that most imports into the UK would not attract a tariff in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Under a temporary scheme 87% of imports by value would be eligible for zero-tariff access – up from 80% at present.
Tariffs would be maintained to protect some industries, including agriculture.
The government also announced it will not introduce any new checks or controls, or require customs declarations for any goods moving from across the border from Ireland to Northern Ireland if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
The decision to drop all checks to avoid friction at the UK’s land border with the EU will be temporary while longer term solutions are negotiated.
The prime minister said Tory MPs will get a free vote on Wednesday evening’s motion. That means Tory MPs can vote with their conscience rather than following the orders of party managers – an unusual move for a vote on a major policy.
The motion says: “This House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework on the future relationship on March 29.”
If no-deal is rejected, MPs will vote on Thursday on delaying Brexit by extending Article 50 – the legal mechanism that takes the UK out of the EU.
The EU has said it would need “a credible justification” before agreeing to any extension. Leaving the EU in 16 days’ time remains the UK’s default position under the law.
In the Commons on Tuesday evening, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May should now call a general election. He called for no-deal to be “taken off the table” – and said Labour would continue to push its alternative Brexit proposals.
The PM had made a last-minute plea to MPs to back her deal after she had secured legal assurances on the Irish backstop – the insurance policy to stop a hard border on the island of Ireland – from the EU during late-night talks in Strasbourg on Monday.
But although she managed to convince about 40 Tory MPs to change their mind, it was not nearly enough to overturn the historic 230 vote defeat she suffered on the same deal in January.