THERESA May is to ask Brussels to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled exit day of March 29 after she saw off, by just two votes, a dramatic attempt by MPs to seize control of the whole withdrawal process.

However, during a third consecutive evening of parliamentary drama, the vote to extend the Article 50 process exposed a large split in the Cabinet and through the Conservative Party.

While the vote on seeking an extension to the Article 50 process passed easily by a 210-majority, most Conservative MPs rejected the Government’s motion. They included seven Cabinet ministers. Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister had decided to allow Tory MPs and ministers a free vote.

Underlining the rift over Mrs May’s decision to seek an extension - following the rejection of a no-deal outcome the night before – some 188 Conservative MPs opposed her motion, including five Scots, while 112 supported it.

The seven Cabinet ministers who opposed the Government motion included Stephen Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, the Commons Leader, and Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary.

The PM has made clear she will press her Brexit plan to a third "meaningful vote" in the Commons by next Wednesday in the hope of securing the support of MPs who rejected it by 230 votes in January and 149 earlier this week.

If she succeeds, she will attend the European Council next Thursday to request a short delay to a date no later than June 30, to allow time to pass legislative changes to secure a smooth and orderly Brexit.

But if she fails, she believes any extension would have to be far longer and would involve the UK taking part in European Parliament elections in May.

In that scenario, David Lidington, Mrs May’s de facto deputy, told MPs the Government would stage two weeks of debate following the European Council to enable MPs to coalesce around a different plan.

Yet it will be entirely in the gift of the EU27 to grant any extension.

Ahead of the votes, Donald Tusk appealed to the EU27 to be "open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its #Brexit strategy and build consensus around it".

The words of the President of the European Council were seized on by Nicola Sturgeon.

She tweeted: “Instead of the PM pathetically using this[issue of extension] to bully MPs into accepting a profoundly bad, already twice defeated deal, we should grab it with both hands and get out of the #brexit mess."

The First Minister added: "If you are a Brexiteer, what does it say about your project if it has to be founded on a deal that a majority believes to be fundamentally flawed? That cannot be the way to proceed, which is why PM should accept defeat, change course and accept this opportunity for a rethink."

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As the political focus now turns to next week’s key vote, the Government is in talks with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists as well as the Conservative Brexiteers’ European Research Group, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, to find a way to get their support to pass Mrs May’s deal at the third attempt.

In what appeared a positive tone, Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, said: "We are talking to the Government and to the Attorney General at the moment to try and make a deal happen because we want to see Brexit working, we want to see it working for the whole of the UK in a way that doesn't leave Northern Ireland behind."

The ERG met at Westminster amid signs of a shift as several members admitted they were now considering swinging behind Mrs May’s deal.

The key aspect that the DUP and the ERG have to weigh up is that if this is rejected next week and the only offer the EU is willing to make is a long, possibly two-year, extension, then Brexit might be lost because during this period the campaign for a People’s Vote could gain traction and secure a second referendum with the potential outcome of Britain voting to stay in the EU.

Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, made clear a long Brexit delay of two years would be a "disaster," adding: “People want to get on with this."

Last night following the main vote, a European Commission spokesman emphasised how a request for an extension required the “unanimous agreement of all 27 member states”.

He added: "It will be for the European Council to consider such a request, giving priority to the need to ensure the functioning of the EU institutions and taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension. President Juncker is in constant contact with all leaders."

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Earlier in the day, senior ministers met for a bad-tempered political meeting of Cabinet ahead of the votes, during which the PM was said to have berated four senior colleagues who defied the Tory whip to abstain in the no-deal vote. These included David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary.

Later, a No 10 spokesman insisted ministers had had a “productive, open and honest discussion”.

Asked what several Cabinet ministers voting against the Government motion said about Mrs May’s authority, he replied: “It was a free vote…As the PM has said in other situations where she has chosen to allow a free vote, she understands there are strong views on all sides of this debate.”

After No 10 claimed the Cabinet was “united” in ensuring the UK left with a deal, it was asked how this could be the case when several Cabinet ministers and most of the party voted against the Government motion.

The spokesman insisted the two positions were “not mutually exclusive,” saying: “If you offer a free vote, inter alia, you are saying it is up to you how you vote…Support was expressed for the PM’s leadership, approach and policy regarding Brexit at political Cabinet.”

Ahead of the main vote, a cross-party amendment, tabled by MPs, including Labour's Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper and Tory Sir Oliver Letwin, was narrowly defeated by 314 votes to 312, a majority of just two.

It would have wrested control of the process from Government, forcing a set of "indicative votes" to be held to determine the preferred Brexit outcome of the Commons.

A Labour amendment demanding an extension to Article 50 withdrawal negotiations to provide time to "find a majority for a different approach" was also defeated by a majority of 16.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn came under fire after the Labour leadership declined to back an amendment, tabled by The Independent Group[TIG], calling for a second EU referendum. It was subsequently defeated by 334 votes to 85, a majority of 249.

Labour insisted it was not the right time to press for another poll after the People's Vote campaign made clear the decision to press the referendum case to a Commons vote was premature.

While Labour whipped its MPs to abstain on this vote, 24 rebelled to vote in favour. These included Scots Ian Murray, Martin Whitfield and Ged Killen. Ruth Smeeth, the Stoke MP, resigned as an aide to Tom Watson, the deputy leader, "to vote against a second referendum".

TIG Brexit spokeswoman Anna Soubry branded the Labour leadership’s decision a “betrayal of its party members and voters,” while Ian Blackford for the SNP called Mr Corbyn and his colleagues “absolutely spineless”.

Later to Conservative laughter, the Labour leader told MPs: "I also reiterate our support for a People's Vote; not as a political point-scoring exercise but as a realistic option to break the deadlock."