LONDON—Prime Minister Theresa May on Feb. 26 offered lawmakers the chance to vote in two weeks for a potentially disorderly no-deal Brexit or to delay Britain’s exit from the European Union if her attempt to ratify a divorce agreement fails.
Opening up the possibility of a delay and removing the immediate threat of a no-deal exit on March 29 marks one of the biggest turning points in the United Kingdom’s labyrinthine Brexit crisis since the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.
In a move which pushes back the Brexit cliff edge by three months to the end of June, May announced she was to give the lawmakers two votes on March 13-14 if she failed to get a deal approved by March 12.
The government would allow a vote on March 13 at the latest asking whether lawmakers supported leaving without a deal. If they rejected such an option, on March 14 they would vote on a “short, limited extension” Brexit delay.
“The United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on March 29 if there is explicit consent in the House for that outcome,” May said, though she was clear that the British government was not removing the ultimate threat of a no-deal Brexit.
“An extension cannot take no deal off the table,” May said. “The only way to do that is to revoke Article 50, which I shall not do, or agree a deal.”
May said any extension, not beyond the end of June, would almost certainly have to be a one-off and that her government must honor the decision to leave the EU because the credibility of British democracy was at stake.
Earlier, The Sun and Daily Mail newspapers reported that May would formally rule out a no-deal Brexit. Reuters reported on Feb. 25 that May’s government was looking at different options, including a possible delay.
“She seems to be giving us a date for a new cliff edge—the end of June,” veteran pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Kenneth Clarke said of May’s statement.
New Cliff Edge?
The EU would be ready to approve a short Brexit delay if Britain needs more time to ensure parliamentary ratification of their divorce agreement, three EU officials said.
After parliament voted 432-202 against her divorce deal in January, May is trying to negotiate changes to the exit deal she agreed with the EU last year and had promised to bring it back for approval in parliament by March 12 at the latest.
The ultimate outcome remains unclear, with scenarios ranging from a last-minute deal to another referendum that May has warned would reopen the divisions of the 2016 referendum campaign or even scupper Brexit.
May’s decision to give lawmakers more say over the outcome was an attempt to see off a rebellion by lawmakers and ministers in her own party who had warned they could vote on Feb. 26 with opposition parties to grab control of Brexit.
After May’s statement, lawmakers said there would not now be a vote on Feb. 27 on the plan for parliament to take control if ministers confirmed May’s pledges.
A delay would increase the chances of a reversal of Brexit, especially as the opposition Labour Party is tilting towards supporting another referendum.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Brexit-supporting lawmaker in May’s Conservative Party, expressed concern: “If it’s being delayed … as a plot to stop Brexit altogether, then I think that would be the most grievous error that politicians could commit.”
Both of Britain’s main parties are under intense pressure to change course on Brexit: Both are deeply divided though both are officially committed to implementing Brexit.
By William James, Kylie MacLellan, and Elizabeth Piper