British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday opened the door to a “short, limited” delay in Britain’s departure from the European Union -- a move greeted warily by pro-Brexit members of her Conservative Party.
Britain is scheduled to leave the bloc on March 29, but after Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the draft withdrawal agreement that she hashed out with E.U. leaders, the country is set to leave without an agreement.
Members of May’s government, along with pro-E.U. members and business groups, have warned that a “no deal Brexit” could have catastrophic consequences and lead to food and medicine shortages and blocked ports. Pro-Brexit MPs have downplayed those concerns, saying that Britain would merely revert to World Trade Organization trading terms.
On Tuesday, May told the House of Commons that there will be a new “meaningful vote” on her deal on March 12. Should that fail, as expected, there would be a vote a day later on a “no-deal Brexit.” May said that, if that fails also, the government would put forward a motion “on whether Parliament wants to seek a short limited extension to Article 50” -- referring to the trigger mechanism by which Britain would leave the E.U.
“Let me be clear, I do not want to see Article 50 extended,” she said, after clarifying that the delay would be no later than the end of June. “Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on 29 March.”
The move is unlikely to please May who has staked her premiership on delivering Brexit, and has already faced significant pressure from her own party to step down over her handling of the Brexit negotiations. British newspapers reported this week that May faced a number of cabinet resignations if she had not given MPs a vote to delay Brexit. She still ruled out revoking Article 50 altogether.
“An extension cannot take no deal off the table," she told Parliament. "The only way to do that is to revoke Article 50, which I shall not do, or agree a deal.”
She added: "Ultimately the choices we face would remain unchanged – leave with a deal, leave with no deal, or have no Brexit."
Pro-Remain forces, who have been increasing calls for a second Brexit referendum, accused May of simply delaying the inevitable and said that Britain will face the same dilemma in the summer as it does now.
“She seems to be giving us a date for a new cliff edge,” Tory MP Ken Clarke, a staunch Europhile, said in the Commons. “Isn’t the danger we continue the same pantomime performance through the next three months?”
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn scorched May over what he called her "cynical tactics" of delay, and said it risked the loss of jobs and investment in Britain as uncertainty continues.
"The responsibility for this lies exclusively with the Prime Minister and her government's shambolic handling of Brexit," he said.
Eurosceptics were similarly disgruntled, with former MP Mark Reckless tweeting simply: “Betrayal.”
Conservative Jacob Rees Mogg, head of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, said that May’s move only moved back the cliff edge and “it doesn’t offer parliament very much.”
He also raised the fear among Brexiteers that the calls for delay have been part of a push to ultimately scupper Brexit.
“If it’s being delayed, which is my suspicion, as a plot to stop Brexit altogether then i think that would be the most grievous error politicians could commit,” Rees-Mogg told Sky News. “It would be overthrowing a referendum result, two general elections -- one to call for the referendum and one to endorse the referendum -- and would undermine our democracy.”
Pressure on May to call for a referendum re-do is likely only to increase over the Spring. On Monday, the Labour Party called for a second referendum, having previously promised to honor the 2016 referendum result in its 2017 election manifesto.
Last week, a group of pro-Remain Labour and Conservative MPs splintered off from their parties to form The Independent Group -- a cross-party bloc of centrist MPs. Those MPs have also called for Britons to be sent back to the polls to reconsider their votes.