North Devon MP Peter Heaton-Jones has defied Conservative party orders to abstain on a historic vote that saw the government defeated and a no-deal Brexit ruled out in any form.
The government had tried to force all Conservative MPs to keep a no-deal scenario on the table if an agreement with the European Union failed to make it through Parliament by March 29.
But it backfired on a dramatic night in Westminster last night (Wednesday, March 13), which saw Mr Heaton-Jones join an unexpected group of 33 Tory MPs, 13 of them government ministers, in rebelling against a powerful three-line party whip by choosing not to vote at all.
In a shock defeat that some said showed Prime Minister Theresa May had lost control of the Brexit process and her own party, the government’s motion lost by 321 to 278 votes.
Mr Heaton-Jones, known locally as a Conservative party loyalist, was present for proceedings as he voted against an earlier motion on the same evening proposing that a no-deal Brexit be ruled out indefinitely.
This was passed against government wishes by a slim majority of 312 to 308 votes.
Four members of Ms May’s cabinet, including Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, faced calls to resign last night for adding to the unexpected abstention count.
Torridge MP Geoffrey Cox toed the Government party line of keeping no-deal on the table by voting against both motions.
It comes as Parliament enters deadlock with 15 days to go until Britain is legally required to leave the EU, after the Prime Minister’s proposed exit deal was rejected for a second time by MPs this week.
Ms May’s proposed exit agreement has divided MPs within and between parties in the House of Commons, with many concerned that it risks upsetting stability on the border between the UK and Ireland.
In a fresh blow for Ms May, Mr Cox, the government’s Attorney General, told the Commons prior to Tuesday’s vote that the backstop risk remained ‘unchanged’.
But despite the concerns Mr Heaton-Jones has consistently backed the government in supporting the embattled withdrawal deal.
“The draft withdrawal agreement, as it stands, is not perfect,” he said in November. “But I believe it delivers most of what people want from Brexit.”
He also rejected a compromise option put forward by Brexiteers to negotiate a deal with the EU during a two-and-a-half year transition phase while outside of the bloc, after delaying Brexit until May.
This plan was also overwhelmingly defeated in Parliament by a majority of 210 votes.
North Devon voted by a decisive 57 per cent margin to leave the European bloc in 2016, while in Torridge, the constituency that Attorney General Cox represents, the Leave majority was more than 60 per cent.
Parliament will tonight (Thursday, March 14) decide on a “short, sharp” extension to Article 50, but the government insist that the exit deal be voted on a final time by March 20 as a condition.
It means that the UK’s departure from the EU could be delayed anywhere from months to years based on whether MPs can reach an urgent compromise next week.
The Gazette has approached Mr Heaton-Jones for a comment.