Theresa May has been told by the House of Commons to rule out a no-deal Brexit at any point, after MPs backed a plan to remove it as an option.

The prime minister had ordered Conservatives MP to oppose the move, brought forward by a cross-party group of MPs, but enough rebelled to see it pass.

Laws already passed dictate that the UK must still leave the EU without a deal on 29 March if nothing else has been agreed, but the result of the vote – an expression of parliament’s will – now piles political pressure on Ms May to change the legislation.

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The prime minister had proposed ruling out a no-deal exit on 29 March - the day Britain is due to leave the EU - but keeping the option on the table for a later date. She had agreed to allow her MPs a free vote on that motion in order to let her divided cabinet ministers vote as they pleased without having to resign.

Her hand was forced, however, when backbenchers put forward an amendment calling for a no-deal Brexit to be ruled out at any stage - not just on 29 March. 

That motion narrowly passed, despite the government whipping its MPs to vote against it.

The amended motion was then put to another vote, with Ms May forced into the farcical situation of ordering her MPs to oppose the motion - now amended - that she herself had put forward. 

But her efforts were in vain, as MPs backed the proposal by 321 votes to 278 - a majority of 43.

Four cabinet ministers - Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell - and a handful of junior ministers ignored party orders to vote against the motion and instead abstained, raising the prospect of them being sacked.

During another evening of dramatic votes in the Commons, MPs also comprehensively rejected a proposal that would have seen the UK leave the EU without an exit deal on 22 May. 

Speaking immediately after suffering her latest Commons setback, Ms May said the government would now bring forward a motion, to be voted on tomorrow, proposing an extension to the Article 50 process.

The motion says that if the Commons passes a Brexit deal by 20 March, Brexit will be delayed until the end of June. If no deal is agreed by 20 March, however, the motion suggests that a much longer extension is likely to follow. 

Ms May told the Commons: "If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short limited technical extension to Article 50 to provide time to pass the necessary legislation and ratify the agreement we have reached with the EU.

"But let me be clear: such a short technical extension is only likely to be on offer if we have a deal in place.
 
She continued: "Therefore, the House has to understand and accept that, if it is not willing to support a deal in the coming days, and as it is not willing to support leaving without a deal on 29 March, then it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension to Article 50.  Such an extension would undoubtedly require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019.
 
"I do not think that would be the right outcome, but the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken."

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