LONDON, Jan 15 - Prime Minister Theresa May faced the prospect of a historic defeat in a vote on her Brexit deal in parliament on Tuesday potentially leaving Britain in limbo about the biggest political and economic change for the country in decades.
Barely two-and-a-half months before Britain is due to leave the EU, May's expected defeat leaves open a range of outcomes, from resurrecting her deal, leaving the EU with no deal at all or holding another referendum that could halt Brexit altogether.
The prime minister's hopes of keeping her widely unpopular plan alive will hinge on the scale of her expected loss. A comparatively narrow defeat could allow her to try again, but a loss by 100 votes or more would most likely be seen as dooming the plan for good.
As Britain's deepest political crisis for at least half a century built to a head, a spokesman for May said she would respond quickly to the result of the vote.
He also said there had been no discussion at a meeting between the prime minister and her cabinet on Tuesday morning of delaying Brexit beyond the March 29 deadline.
May says accepting her deal is the only way parliament can fulfill its promise to deliver on the 2016 vote to quit the EU, and failing to do so would be "catastrophic" for democracy. Her ministers pressed that message on the morning of the vote.
"The British people have placed a responsibility on us," Environment Secretary Michael Gove told BBC radio. "Are we going to live up to that responsibility and vote to leave the European Union or are we going to disappoint them and damage our democracy by not voting to leave the EU?"
THROWING OUR HANDS UP
Many Brexit-supporting lawmakers from May's Conservative Party reject the deal, particularly a "backstop" requirement that Northern Ireland stay closely aligned to EU rules to avoid the return of a hard border with EU member Ireland.
Dominic Raab, who resigned as May's Brexit minister in November in protest at her plans, said the government should not lose its nerve over the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, something many employers fear would mean chaos for business.
"It's time for us, through this vote, to make clear not just that the current terms are unacceptable, but that we are not just throwing our hands up in the air," he said.
"We are going to leave on March 29."
Investors sense the possibility of a no-deal Brexit is receding, given the concerns of lawmakers about the upheaval it could bring. Sterling hit a two-month high against the U.S. dollar on Monday and held near that level on Tuesday.
Germany's foreign minister said the EU could hold new talks with Britain after a defeat in parliament of the plan May struck with other leaders of the bloc in November, but he ruled out significant changes to the agreement.
May has refused to budge over her deal despite criticism from all quarters. The agreement, which envisages close economic ties with the EU, has united the opposing sides of the debate -- pro-EU lawmakers who see it as the worst of all worlds and Brexit supporters who say it will make Britain a vassal state.
May and EU leaders swapped assurances on the withdrawal deal on Monday, but there was little sign of a change of heart among rebel lawmakers.
The EU told May that it stood by commitments to seek ways to avoid triggering the Irish "backstop." That failed to reassure Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May's minority government and said it still rejects the deal.
May has warned pro-Brexit lawmakers that if her plan is rejected no Brexit at all would be more likely than Britain leaving the EU without a deal. She has also warned her Conservative Party against allowing the left-wing opposition Labour Party to seize the initiative.
Labour is formally committed to Brexit but opposes May's deal. Polls of party activists show that most want the party to back a new referendum. It has not done so, but has not ruled it out if May's deal is voted down and she refuses to resign.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, hoping to force a national election, is expected to call for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in May if she loses Tuesday's vote.