EU ready to delay Brexit as May makes final bid to save her deal
The EU is preparing to offer Theresa May a delay to Brexit until at least July if, as widely expected, the prime minister fails to get her departure deal through the Commons this week.
As May starts the most important week of her premiership with a final plea to MPs to back her proposals, officials in Brussels are getting ready for an anticipated request from London in the coming weeks to extend the timetable.
May will use a speech in the Brexit heartland of Stoke-on-Trent to warn MPs that voting down her plan could jeopardise departure and cause “catastrophic harm” to voters’ faith in politics.
But with Labour pondering an imminent no-confidence motion in the government, and even loyal Conservative MPs predicting a heavy defeat for May tomorrow, attention is starting to focus on what will come next.
While some Tories want May to respond by proposing a cross-party solution based on a softer, Norwaystyle Brexit, the expectation is that the prime minister will make a statement to the nation saying she will seek further concessions from Brussels.
According to EU officials, this is likely to be followed by a request for more time. Once this happens, a special leaders’ summit would be convened by the European council president, Donald Tusk, to push back the departure from the current date of 29 March.
The amount of additional time would be determined by the reason put forward for the delay. A brief “technical” extension is a probable first step to allow May time to try to revise her deal and put it to the Commons again.
An EU official said: “Should the prime minister survive and inform us that she needs more time to win round parliament to a deal, a technical extension up to July will be offered.”
Senior EU sources said that a further, lengthier extension could be offered at a later date should a general election or second referendum be called, although the forthcoming May elections for
‘It’s totally untrue that I’m in a conspiracy with the Speaker’ Dominic Grieve Conservative MP
the European parliament would create complications.
In her speech today, May will urge MPs “to consider the consequences of their actions on the faith of the British people in our democracy”.
“What if we found ourselves in a situation where parliament tried to take the UK out of the EU in opposition to a remain vote?” she is to say. “People’s faith in the democratic process and their politicians would suffer catastrophic harm. We all have a duty to implement the result of the referendum.”
But with time running out there were few signs of the shift in opinion hoped for by the prime minister when she postponed the vote before Christmas. A number of Conservative MPs said that, while the margin of defeat remained unclear, the fact of the loss appeared inevitable.
“I don’t think the defeat will go into three figures – I’d expect between 50 and 100,” said one pro-Brexit MP who strongly supports May’s plan. “It depends in part how many Labour MPs are willing to vote for the deal.”
It is understood that three Labour MPs who ministers had hoped would support the plan after the government adopted their amendment on workers rights, Caroline Flint, Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy, will now vote against it.
A particularly heavy defeat could jeopardise May’s position, just a month after she won a no-confidence vote among Tory backbenchers. One usually loyal MP said: “If the loss is large there will be some pressure on her to go. There is a sense she has reached the end of the road.”
Another well connected Tory MP said: “In parliament, the prime minister is basically there as the person
who can deliver votes most of the time. If you can no longer do that on a sustained basis, it makes a mockery of the post. That doesn’t mean that she can’t carry on. What it does mean is the job becomes almost ceremonial.”
Jeremy Corbyn said a Labour no-confidence motion against the government would come “soon”, but again declined to confirm it would immediately follow the Brexit deal being defeated. “We will table a motion of no confidence in the government at a time of our choosing, but it’s going to be soon, don’t worry about that,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
Also speaking yesterday, the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, and the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, both declined to discuss any alternative Brexit plan. “Let’s cross that bridge if and when it happens,” Grayling told Sky News.
Cabinet sources said that while some ministers, such as Amber Rudd and David Gauke, had urged May to consider a new approach as a backup, there had been little concrete done on this. One source said: “The view is that there’s still a little bit of steam left in the PM’s deal. If someone is coming up with a brand new plan B, like Norway, then they’re doing it very quietly in a dark room.”
Amid the vacuum, MPs will next week attempt again to seize control of the process, with various groups trying to push either a Norway-style soft Brexit or the idea of a second referendum. Separately, a cross-party group of MPs from the Lib Dems, Labour, Conservatives and SNP will today pub- lish two draft bills designed to pave the way for a new referendum giving voters the options of backing the government’s deal or staying in the EU.
Among those behind the plan is the Tory former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who was accused by some newspapers yesterday of leading a “coup” against Brexit in alliance with the Speaker, John Bercow.
Grieve, whose amendment passed last week obliges May to respond to a defeat of her plan within three days, told the Guardian the reports were “rubbish”, and had seen him receive death threats. “I can emphatically say, it is totally untrue that I am in a conspiracy with the Speaker either to stop Brexit or to change the standing orders of the house,” he said.
▲ Theresa May in her Maidenhead constituency yesterday. Below, the Brexit minister, Stephen Barclay