Prime minister says ‘an extension cannot take no-deal off the table.’
LONDON — Theresa May cleared a path for Brexit to be delayed, telling MPs that if her deal is rejected again in a vote next month, parliament will decide whether to leave with no deal, or to postpone the U.K.’s departure.
The U.K. prime minister has pledged to bring her deal back for a second attempt at ratification in the House of Commons by March 12.
If the deal falls a second time, despite any changes that May secures to the controversial Northern Ireland backstop, she told MPs they would first be asked, by March 13, whether they are prepared to leave the EU on March 29 with no deal. That is the current legal default scenario.
If, as is likely, that is rejected, MPs will have a chance by March 14 to vote on whether to extend the Article 50 negotiating period. May said it would only be a “short, time-limited extension,” indicating that it would not extend beyond the end of June and that it is not her preference.
Any extension to the Article 50 negotiating period would have to be requested by the U.K. and could only be implemented with unanimous agreement of the EU27. However, EU leaders have indicated a willingness to accept such a request. European Council President Donald Tusk said this week it was the “rational solution” to avoid a “chaotic” no deal Brexit and that the EU would be “understanding.”
“An extension cannot take no-deal of the table,” she said, and pledged not to revoke Article 50.
Explaining the likely timescale, May said: “An extension beyond the end of June would mean the U.K. 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?”
She said an extension “would almost certainly have to be a one-off.”
“If we had not taken part in the European Parliament elections, it would be extremely difficult to extend again, so it would create a much sharper cliff edge in a few months’ time,” she said.
How the government would vote on the motion on no deal, or the motion on an extension, is not clear, and a Downing Street spokesman said it was a question “for another time.”
Responding to May’s statement, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confirmed his party’s support for a second referendum should May’s deal be approved by the House of Commons.
“We cannot risk our country’s industry and people’s livelihoods and so if it somehow does pass in some form at a later stage, we believe there must be a confirmatory public vote to see if people feel it is what they voted for,” he said.
However, he emphasized that Labour is still prioritizing its own Brexit plan.
“She promises a short extension but for what?” Corbyn said. “If the government wants a genuine renegotiation it should do so on terms that can win a majority of this House, on terms backed by businesses and unions and that are contained within Labour’s amendment.”
Labour backs a permanent customs union with the EU and close alignment with single market rules.
Chair of the backbench Brexiteer European Research Group Jacob Rees-Mogg told Sky News that May’s deal would continue to be “unsatisfactory” while the backstop remains legally unchanged. “If that can be changed … within the next fortnight then there is a chance that people will vote for her deal. But if the backstop remains unchanged, no. This brinkmanship, this effort of ‘call my bluff’ is not going to change people’s minds to back her deal,” he said.
Brexiteers want the backstop replaced with so-called alternative arrangements known as the Malthouse compromise, which would likely see additional checks on trade, largely away from the border, along with other measures.
May said that the EU has agreed to set up a “joint work stream” to look at the options as part of the future relationship talks that will follow the U.K.’s exit.
“This work will be done in parallel with the future relationship negotiations and is without prejudice to them,” she said.
“Our aim is to ensure that, even if the full future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, the backstop is not needed because we have a set of alternative arrangements ready to go.”
This appears to fall short of the legal changes to the backstop Brexiteers are seeking. Nigel Dodds, Westminster leader of May’s parliamentary supporters the Democratic Unionist Party, continues to demand a “legally watertight way out of the backstop” in exchange for his party’s support for her deal.
Tory MP Ken Clarke asked May how long she expects any delay to last, saying “she seems to be giving us a new cliff edge.” May said it should be “as short as possible.”