Brexit is going down to the wire.
With just 33 days until Britain is set to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May has again delayed a parliamentary vote on her beleaguered Brexit deal in a desperate effort to buy more time to revise its terms with Brussels.
The so-called meaningful vote had been penciled in for Wednesday. But speaking to reporters traveling to an EU-Arab League summit in Egypt on Sunday, May said it would now happen by March 12 – a mere 17 days before Brexit day.
May said she would be returning to Brussels on Tuesday for more talks. “As a result of that we won’t bring a meaningful vote to Parliament this week. “But we will ensure that that happens by March 12,” she told reporters on the plane to Egypt, according to the UK’s Press Association and Reuters.
Downing Street confirmed the delay to CNN.
The decision is likely to increase the divisions in May’s government over the issue. Some members of her Cabinet are in open revolt over her failure to rule out the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
Lawmakers could take matters into their own hands this week. In place of the meaningful vote on Wednesday, Members of Parliament will be able to put down amendments to a neutral motion on Brexit. These could force the government to delay the Article 50 process, or hold a second referendum.
The opposition Labour party condemned May’s decision to postpone the meaningful vote to March. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer called the delay the “height of irresponsibility.”
“Theresa May is recklessly running down the clock in a desperate attempt to force MPs to choose between her deal and no deal,” he said on Twitter.
But May insisted that the Brexit deadline could still be met: “It is still within our grasp to leave the European Union with a deal on the 29th of March and that is what we are working to do.”
Very few people outside the British government believe there’s much chance of that happening. And it emerged this weekend that a number of people inside government don’t believe it’s possible, either.
Three members of May’s Cabinet wrote on Saturday that they were prepared to defy her and vote to extend Article 50 – the legal process for leaving the EU – if there was no breakthrough this week.
Writing in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark said they wanted to prevent a “disastrous” no-deal.
“It would be better to seek to extend Article 50 and delay our date of departure rather than crash out of the European Union on March 29,” the trio wrote in the article, published Saturday.
It’s a view shared by former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, who writing in UK newspaper the Sunday Mirror, said extending Article 50 would “let us reflect, reconsider and renegotiate Mrs May’s botched terms.”
“We have only three days to draw back from the brink,” he added.
As frustrations grow in London, May is expected to hold talks with key EU figures at the EU-Arab nations summit in Sharm el Sheikh, including European Council President Donald Tusk.
British lawmakers have rejected the Withdrawal Agreement finalized between the British government and the EU in November. The main sticking point remains the Northern Ireland backstop, an insurance policy designed to prevent the return of border posts on the frontier with the Republic of Ireland.
But European leaders have been reluctant to renegotiate what they say is the “only deal possible.” In a sign of just how strained relations had become in recent months, Tusk even went as far as to say there was a “special place in Hell” for people who “promoted Brexit” without a plan.
Just hours before setting off for Egypt, May told a closed meeting of grassroots Conservatives that Britain’s exit from the EU must not be “frustrated,” according to details of her speech released by Downing Street.
“We must not, and I will not, frustrate what was the largest democratic exercise in this country’s history,” May said at the National Conservative Convention (NCC) in Oxford on Saturday. “In the very final stages of this process, the worst thing we could do is lose our focus,” she added.
May’s Conservative Party is splintering over her handling of Brexit. Three Conservative lawmakers quit the party earlier this week, joining eight former Labour MPs to form a new parliamentary bloc.
Speaking to Conservative party members on Saturday, May sought to stem further high-profile resignations, saying “We are not a party of purges and retribution,” the UK’s Press Association reported. “We called a referendum and let people express their views – so we should not be seeking to deselect any of our MPs because of their views on Brexit,” she added.