LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May promised on Tuesday to allow parliament to delay Brexit by up to three months so that Britain would not crash out of the European Union without a deal on the scheduled departure date of March 29.
The dramatic reversal in May’s steadfast Brexit strategy came after threats of mass resignations from her own ministers and calls for a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership from the main opposition Labour Party.
It saw the pound rally to its highest level since May 2017 against the euro — and since October 12 against the dollar — as investor fears of imminent trade gridlock and financial market mayhem eased.
The beleaguered British leader told parliament she would offer MPs the chance to vote on Mar 14 on a “short, limited” extension of the Mar 29 deadline if her own divorce proposals fail to win lawmakers’ support by Mar 12.
But she also cautioned that the extra time would not help negotiations and that she herself opposed any delay.
“Let me be clear, I do not want to see Article 50 extended,” she said in reference to an EU procedure that set Brexit in motion two years ago.
“Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on 29 March,” she said.
May laid out a three-step procedure with a vote in parliament on her latest Brexit proposals by Mar 12.
The deal’s defeat would see parliament vote on the following day for the option of leaving the EU club without an agreement.
“The United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on Mar 29 if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome,” May said.
That measure’s defeat would see May’s government “on Mar 14 bring forward a motion on whether parliament wants to seek a short limited extension of Article 50,” May said.
She had long argued that the no-deal threat must be kept on the table in order to wrest essential concessions from Brussels.
But her talks with European leaders on Sunday and Monday in Egypt achieved no breakthrough and the 46-year relationship is approaching a messy breakup that could wreak havoc on global markets and create border chaos.
That possibility prompted three junior ministers to “implore” May on Tuesday to fundamentally alter her Brexit approach.
“We must act immediately to ensure that we are not swept over the precipice on Mar 29,” they wrote in the Daily Mail.
Three more senior cabinet members published a similar letter over the weekend.
The rebel ministers were all backing a proposed parliamentary amendment that would force May to set a new Brexit date if she fails to get better terms on the disputed issue of the Irish border.
Lawmakers will still get a chance to vote on the emergency measure on Wednesday.
Any delay will likely infuriate powerful eurosceptics in both May’s government and party who fear Brexit either being watered down or reversed.
And those still hoping to avert the split were boosted by the Labour Party’s conditional decision to back a second Brexit referendum on Monday.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn bowed to the pressure from the more EU-friendly wing of his party by offering a way to halt “a damaging Tory Brexit”.
Corbyn said on Tuesday that if May’s deal “somehow does pass in some form at a later stage, we believe there must be a confirmatory public vote to see if people feel that’s what they voted for.”