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British Prime Minister Theresa May looks on at the EU parliament headquarters in Brussels, on Feb. 7, 2019.

Yves Herman/Reuters

The uncertainty surrounding Brexit has intensified after British Prime Minister Theresa May failed to win parliamentary backing for her strategy to salvage the government’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union.

Members of Parliament voted 303 to 258 on Thursday to reject a motion that endorsed Ms. May’s approach to seeking changes to the agreement. The result has left Ms. May’s strategy in tatters and increased the likelihood the United Kingdom will either leave the EU on March 29 without a deal or be forced to seek an extension to the deadline.

The vote has also exposed the deep divisions inside Ms. May’s Conservative Party caucus. Sixty-seven Tories – around one-quarter of the caucus – abstained from voting on Thursday in protest over Ms. May’s strategy, more than enough to ensure the motion’s defeat.

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The motion was not binding on the government but Ms. May has been badly undermined as she tries to win concessions from Brussels that will save the agreement. Until now, she’d had the backing of Parliament to push for changes to the backstop, a provision in the deal that guarantees the Irish border will remain open by tying Northern Ireland closely to EU regulations.

The backstop has been the focal point of Tory opposition to the deal because many Tories believe it defeats the purpose of Brexit by keeping the United Kingdom linked to the EU indefinitely. The EU has not been keen to make any changes but Ms. May had argued that if the backstop was altered, the rebel Tories would get onside and Parliament would back the agreement. Now that argument has been thrown into question.

“The Prime Minister has been dealt yet another body blow. This is really serious stuff,” Tory MP Anna Soubry said after Thursday’s vote.

“Tonight’s vote shows there is no majority for the Prime Minister’s course of action in dealing with Brexit,” Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “The government cannot keep on ignoring Parliament or plowing on toward March 29 without a coherent plan.”

The main sticking point for many Tories on Thursday was that Ms. May hasn’t ruled out walking away from the negotiations and allowing the country to leave on March 29 without an agreement. They argue the United Kingdom doesn’t need the backstop and the country would be better off with a “managed Brexit,” where the government negotiated short-term measures with the EU to cover issues such as border controls and transportation links, and then began talks on a comprehensive trade deal.

Ms. May and her cabinet ministers have insisted a no-deal Brexit remains a possibility, but that wasn’t made clear enough in Thursday’s motion, which angered Tory rebels.

“It’s an unfortunate fiasco that the government’s clumsiness created,” said Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who was among the Tories who abstained. He tried to play down Thursday’s result, noting there will be further votes on Ms. May’s talks with the EU in two weeks.

Ms. May also faces pressure from dozens of other Tory MPs, and several cabinet ministers, who want her to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Several senior cabinet ministers have indicated they would resign if no-deal was an option.

Ms. May did not comment on the result but her office issued a statement saying she would continue to seek changes to the backstop.

“The government will continue to pursue this with the EU to ensure we leave on time on 29th March,” it said.

It’s not clear how Ms. May will be able win any concessions from Brussels. She’s lost parliamentary support and her main argument for changing the backstop has been weakened. EU leaders have also insisted the backstop can’t be changed because it’s an essential way of protecting the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Ireland and eliminated remaining border controls.

EU officials have also pointed out Ms. May agreed to the backstop when the deal was struck last November. She’s had to backtrack because the agreement was soundly defeated in the House of Commons last month because of opposition to the backstop.

The increasing uncertainty also left many business groups frustrated on Thursday.

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“As the clock ticks down, the economic indicators drop down,” said Colin Stanbridge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce. “Uncertainty is continuing to do real-term damage to businesses, which is why they are crying out for politicians to stop grandstanding, agree a way forward and move on to the future trading negotiations with the EU.”

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