Theresa May has called off tomorrow night’s crunch Commons vote on her Brexit deal in the face of almost certain defeat.
The prime minister said while there was “broad support” for many key aspects of it, there remained “widespread and deep concern” about the Northern Irish backstop.
This is aimed at preventing a hard border on Ireland until a permanent future relationship replacement is agreed.
Speaking at the Despatch Box, Mrs May told MPs: “If we went ahead and held the vote, the deal would be rejected by a significant margin.
“We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow night and not proceed to divide the House at this time.”
The Tory leader said she would now meet her counter-parts in other member states in advance of the next European Council summit due to take place at the end of the week.
News of the humiliating step leaked out minutes after the prime minister made an emergency phone call to her Cabinet.
As it was going on, her spokeswoman was still insisting the so-called meaningful vote would go ahead as planned.
But shortly afterwards, government sources were confirming the plan was indeed to postpone.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused the Tory leader of “pathetic cowardice” and challenged Labour to lodge a motion of no confidence, which she said the SNP would support.
Mrs May could also yet face a confidence vote triggered by her own MPs if the required 48 letters are submitted to the Tory backbench 1922 committee.
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn called the decision a “desperate step”, adding: “We have known for at least two weeks that Theresa May’s worst of all worlds deal was going to be rejected by parliament because it is damaging for Britain.
“We don’t have a functioning government … Labour’s alternative plan for a jobs first deal must take centre stage in any future talks with Brussels.”
Labour MP David Lammy, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, described the events an “unprecedented and historic humiliation” for the prime minister and called again for a people’s vote to “unblock” the political deadlock.
Meanwhile, there was a boost for anti-Brexit campaigners as the European Court of Justice ruled that Britain could unilaterally revoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and remain in the European Union without having to seek approval from Brussels.
As events unfolded, there was much speculation as to whether the prime minister would have to win a vote in the House before being able to delay the meaningful vote.
Clarification is expected in Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom’s statement which follows Mrs May’s.
Responding to Mrs May’s statement, Mr Corbyn said there was no point in her bringing back the same deal to the House further down the line.
Calling for MPs to be able to debate the negotiating mandate, he added: “If you are going back to Brussels , then you need to build a consensus in this House.”
SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman has accused the UK Government of being in a “total state of chaos” over the prime minister’s Brexit deal.
The Aberdeen North MP demanded Theresa May make clear when the Commons vote on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration would take place following the announcement it is to be postponed.
She called the decision to pull tomorrow night’s so-called meaningful vote in the face of defeat as an “abdication of her responsibility”.
And she asked: “Isn’t the only way to break this deadlock to put it to the people?”
Mrs May insisted her responsibility was to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum and in such a way that is “good for the whole of the UK”.
She added: “I believe it is important to honour the result of the referendum. I believe it is a matter of the duty of members of this House to honour that result.
“I believe also it’s a matter of faith in politicians.”
Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Vince Cable said the government had “lost all authority”, adding that he would support a confidence motion if Labour tables one.
And the DUP’s Nigel Dodds asked when the prime minister would understand the withdrawal agreement is “unacceptable to this House”.