London, United Kingdom – In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Theresa May has made a U-turn on extending Article 50, the part of the Treaty on the European Union that allows member states to leave the bloc.
She also told the House that while her priority remained working with the EU to achieve a deal that parliament can support, her deadline to achieve that is going to be March 12 at the latest.
If she loses another “meaningful vote” to be held by then, she will hold a vote on leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement in place on March 29.
Should MPs vote against a no deal, which is a likely outcome in that scenario, a vote will be held on March 14 to seek a short extension “not beyond the end of June”, the embattled PM said.
“An extension beyond the end of June would mean the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections. What kind of message would that send to the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago now?” May said in her speech.
She added that an extension would “almost certainly have to be a one-off” and that further extensions would be difficult, creating “a much sharper cliff edge in a few months’ time”.
Looming Brexit votes
Labour MP Yvette Cooper is due to table a cross-party amendment to May’s Brexit motion on Wednesday, which aims to delay the UK’s exit date by extending Article 50 if the prime minister can’t get parliament to agree on her deal by March 13.
Unlike May’s proposals, Cooper’s amendment would be legally binding and give parliament more control over the Brexit timetable. A version of this amendment was voted down by MPs earlier this year.
It remains to be seen in Wednesday’s vote whether May’s assurances, which mirror the Cooper-Letwin bill, will succeed in stemming a rebellion from MPs who are looking to force her hand to avoid a no deal.
“Given the controversy about how Cooper-Letwin are planning on passing that bill, to suspend parliamentary rules for a period of time, I think that some of her backbenchers who might have been rebelling against the government tomorrow might end up backing the PM,” Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government in London, told Al Jazeera.
Theresa May has faced renewed criticism for postponing a “meaningful vote” scheduled for this week by another fortnight. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said the prime minister was “kicking the can down the road” while “the road is running out”.
Labour backs second referendum
Labour announced its own shift on Brexit strategy on Monday, when Corbyn said the party was ready to back a second referendum to “prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country.”
Labour will put its Brexit plan in parliament on Wednesday and said it will support a second vote if that is defeated – as it’s likely to be.
The Labour Party had been ambivalent in its support of another public vote on Brexit, in fear of alienating its minority leave-voting constituencies. But Corbyn faced a series of MP defections to a newly-formed, “centrist” Independent Group last week, forcing him to try and hold the party together.
Under pressure from backbench conservative MPs, May had to return to Brussels to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.
She is seeking legally-binding changes to the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland, which hard Brexiters see as a way of tying the UK to EU’s trade rules indefinitely.
The EU has been firm in its refusal to reopen the withdrawal agreement, while European Council President Donald Tusk conceded on Monday that “in the situation we are in, an extension would be a rational solution”.
Despite the heightened likelihood of a delay, Thimont Jack sees things “coming to a head”.
“So far there has been lots of discussion about options and ways forward, but actually not many have been put to a vote in a House of Commons. We haven’t had a vote on a second referendum yet for example,” she said.
Thimont Jack added that there is a feel that MPs “are going to have to start making a move, to set out where they are, how they want this to go”.