Speaking in parliament immediately after the vote, she promised to meet urgently with her own MPs and the opposition parties to find a way forward, and said she would report back to parliament on or before Monday January 21.
“It is clear that the House does not support this deal, but tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support,” she said.
Parliamentarians will use the coming days to scramble for an alternative Brexit plan that can command majority support, but there is no evidence as yet of a proposal on which 320 MPs can agree.
Mrs May said the prolonged delay was increasing uncertainty and rancour, and the public wanted the issue settled. She demanded MPs take a realistic approach, and seemed to query whether a consensus was achievable.
“Given the urgent need to make progress, we must focus on ideas that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House,” she said. “If these meetings yield such ideas, the government will explore them with the EU.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker issued a statement urging the British government to act swiftly.
“I take note with regret of the outcome of the vote in the House of Commons this evening,” he said. “I urge the UK to clarify its intentions as soon as possible. Time is almost up.”
The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told the BBC the Continent was “united and determined to reach an agreement”, but did not immediately signal willingness to reset the dial on negotiations.
Mrs May said she wanted to avoid Britain leaving the EU without a deal. “The best way forward is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal,” she said – underscoring the likelihood of a delay to Brexit.
Mr Juncker said the vote had increased the risk of “a disorderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom”. “While we do not want this to happen, the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared,” he said.
Business will chafe at the continued uncertainty, but will at least welcome the likelihood of additional months of grace before Brexit – particularly if Britain does end up crashing out with no deal.
Business groups are not confident about the government’s level of preparedness for a no-deal Brexit, and many companies are still cobbling together contingency plans.
Like Mrs May’s Conservatives, Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party has no settled position about how to deliver Brexit. Some Labour MPs want a second referendum, others want a ‘softer Brexit’, and there is even a handful of trenchant Brexiteers in their midst. Mr Corbyn is trying to prevent these divisions, which spill over into Labour’s electoral support base, from tumbling into the open. When they do, it may be one route out of the current deadlock.
The EU, meanwhile, does not have many clear options either. Continental leaders have made clear that the agreement cannot be renegotiated, and are standing by Ireland’s insistence on the ‘backstop’ mechanism.
It’s generally understood that the EU would be prepared to extend the Brexit deadline to allow Britain to implement an agreed deal, or to hold another referendum – but probably not if the only purpose was to allow parliament to continue its long wrangle. It’s not yet clear whether, or to what extent, the EU would be prepared to open talks on an entirely different kind of Brexit, even if Britain’s parliament voted for this.