Theresa May has accepted for the first time that the UK may not leave the European Union on March 29, offering MPs a chance to vote to delay Brexit if her deal is rejected again next month.
In a dramatic statement to the House of Commons, the British Prime Minister left no doubt that she does not want a delay and still hopes to obtain assurances from Brussels which will win MPs’ approval for her Withdrawal Agreement.
But she announced that if she loses a “meaningful vote”, due to take place by March 12, MPs will be offered separate votes on a no-deal Brexit or extending the two-year Article 50 negotiation process beyond March 29.
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn accused the PM of “kicking the can down the road”, while the chairman of the influential European Research Group of Tory eurosceptics, Jacob Rees-Mogg, raised fears of a “plot to stop Brexit” which would “undermine our democracy”.
“My suspicion is that any delay to Brexit is a plot to stop Brexit,” said Mr Rees-Mogg, adding: “This would be the most grievous error that politicians could commit.”
Downing Street declined to say how Conservative MPs would be whipped in the votes, or what length of extension would be offered if it came to a motion to extend Article 50.
But Mrs May told the Commons that she wanted any delay to be “as short as possible”. Any extension beyond the end of June would require the UK to take part in the upcoming European Parliament elections, while a shorter delay “would almost certainly have to be a one-off”, she said.
There was no indication of what would happen if MPs vote down not only Mrs May’s deal and no-deal, but also an extension, with Number 10 saying only that such a combination of results would be “contradictory”.
The PM’s announcement came amid mounting expectations of a ministerial revolt, with three members of the Government – Richard Harrington, Claire Perry and Margot James – breaking ranks to warn in a newspaper article that they would back a cross-party amendment designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
But Mrs May’s official spokesman said there were no threats of resignations at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, where the PM received “broad agreement” from ministers for her plans.
Tory MP Nick Boles said the cross-party amendment, drawn up by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Sir Oliver Letwin, will be tabled for debate on Wednesday, with supporters expected to seek assurances on Mrs May’s intentions before deciding whether to push it to a vote.
Although Mrs May’s promised votes closely match the Cooper/Letwin amendment’s provisions, the PM made clear she will order Tory MPs to vote against it, as it would hand Parliament control of the Brexit process.
Very good news. PM statement does what is needed to prevent no deal exit on 29 March and enables MPs to forge cross-party consensus on new way forward if PM's deal does not succeed on 12 March. No need now for Cooper-Letwin Bill.
— Oliver Letwin (@oletwinofficial) February 26, 2019
As a result of all our cross party arguments & our Bill, PM’s statement today accepts most of provisions of the Bill to provide for votes that can avert No Deal on March 29. We are still laying cross party amendments today in order to secure confirmation of PM’s commitment
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) February 26, 2019
If her plans are backed by MPs on Wednesday, Mrs May will return to the Commons by March 12 for a further “meaningful vote”. If that is rejected, a vote on whether the UK should leave the EU without a deal on March 29 will be held by March 13.
If this too is voted down by MPs, a further division will take place on March 14 on whether the PM should request an Article 50 extension from Brussels.
To uproar in the Commons, Mrs May told MPs: “They are commitments I am making as Prime Minister and I will stick by them, as I have previous commitments to make statements and table amendable motions by specific dates.”
But she added: “Let me be clear, I do not want to see Article 50 extended. Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on March 29.”
Brexiteer Peter Bone warned Mrs May that voters would regard it as a “betrayal” if she delayed the UK’s withdrawal date after saying “108 times” that Britain would leave on March 29.
But Tory former Chancellor Ken Clarke said he wanted to congratulate the Prime Minister on “accepting that we’re not remotely ready for the chaos of a no-deal departure on March 29”.
Jeremy Corbyn accused the PM of “kicking the can down the road”, and confirmed he will table an amendment to Wednesday’s motion seeking MPs support for his party’s own customs union deal.
The Labour leader has said he will throw his party’s weight behind a second referendum if his proposed deal is rejected.
The Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said Mrs May “could not be trusted” not to dodge another meaningful vote, and urged her to rule out no-deal now.
But the PM borrowed the catchphrase of TV’s insurance ad meerkats as she replied: “If he wants to end the uncertainty and deal with the issues he raised… then he should vote for a deal. Simples.”
Independent Group MP Chuka Umunna accused the PM of “caving in to the far-right Tory ERG”.
Yet again the PM caves in to the far right Tory ERG. She had the chance to take no deal off the table today but it is very much still there. When will sensible Ministers stand up to her and them? What will it take for these people to put country before party? Appalling.
— Chuka Umunna (@ChukaUmunna) February 26, 2019
“She had the chance to take no-deal off the table today but it is very much still there,” said Mr Umunna. “When will sensible ministers stand up to her and them? What will it take for these people to put country before party? Appalling.”
Business welcomed moves to avert a no-deal Brexit in March, but said that more clarity was needed on the way ahead.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, said: “To avoid a hammer blow to firms and livelihoods, delay cannot simply be an extension of stalemate. Compromise is the only way.”
And Stephen Phipson, chief executive of manufacturers’ organisation Make UK, said: “A short extension of Article 50 simply moves the cliff-edge back a few weeks and it doesn’t offer UK manufacturers confidence that we will not crash out of the EU a short time later than expected.”