British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday bowed to massive pressures at home over Brexit by opening door to a possible delayed Brexit.
May, when speaking at the House of Commons, offered members of parliament (MPs) the chance to delay Brexit if they reject her deal with the European Union (EU) again in “a meaningful vote” in two weeks. It is the first time for the British government to state publicly that it is considering the options of a Brexit delay. Her big concession is also read by some observers here as a significant tactical retreat: it was about buying herself more time. Her three-step proposal is being observed here as a significant policy shift in her steadfast Brexit strategy since she took office in July 2016 against a background of current threats of massive resignation from her government and rising public and opposition outcrys for a second Brexit referendum.
The parliament has to get through three votes starting March 12 before a delayed British divorce with the EU. If May succeeds in pushing her Brexit deal through the parliament in the first vote, the other two subsequent proposed balloting will be automatically cancelled. However, observers here said that her chance of success is very slim. The prime minister announced the dramatic change although she makes it crystal clear that “I do not want to see Article 50 extended.” The latest move greatly weakened her ability to threaten the parliament and EU leaders with an ultimatum of “my deal or no deal.” May told the House of Commons that MPs can postpone Brexit and stop a no-deal departure from the EU. In other words, MPs will have the chance to vote on a no-deal Brexit or a short extension to Article 50 if the prime minister cannot get her deal through the House of Commons.
The Tuesday announcement came after three British government ministers — Richard Harrington, Claire Perry and Margot James — threatened to support a fresh amendment attempt to extend Article 50. Her climbdown, which came just 31 days before the planned exit date, is seen as her desperate efforts to avoid a Tory revolt. Amber Rudd, British work and pensions secretary, is also among the senior government officials who are threatening to resign in the next 24 hours if May does not give a clear enough promise that MPs can delay Brexit if her deal is defeated again. The rebel ministers were all backing a delayed Brexit if she could not get the legally binding assurance from Brussels she has been seeking to avoid a harder border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Accusing May of “running down the clock” in a “grotesquely reckless” way, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said at the parliament that “the prime minister’s botched deal provides no certainty or guarantees for the future.” The Tuesday announcement does not offer a guarantee for a Brexit delay, but it makes the postponement more likely. The prime minister, who repeatedly said that her government is mandated to deliver the outcome of the June 2016 referendum, insists that Brexit should be carried out as planned on March 29. Due to disagreements with May and her party over Brexit, former Tory MPs — Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen — have defected to join the Independent Group. They will not vote in the parliament in accordance with the party lines. Also on Tuesday, Downing Street insisted that “very strong preference” remains on getting a revised Brexit deal.
Meanwhile, British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is in talks with EU officials to revise the Irish backstop. But no big changes are expected, so May’s Brexit deal is expected to be voted down, just as it was by a record margin in January, when she has sustained the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the modern era after MPs rejected her Brexit deal by a resounding majority of 230. Earlier this week, the prime minister grabbed some quality time with unyielding European Union leaders on the sidelines of the EU-Arab League summit in Egypt although Brexit was not on the agenda of the high-level gathering. However, her efforts did not produce any results in her favor. “Any extension cannot take no deal off the table,” May told the MPs. “The best way to end uncertainty over Brexit is to vote for a deal,” May added.