LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday offered members of parliament the chance to vote in two weeks for a potentially disorderly no-deal Brexit or to delay Britain’s exit from the European Union if her attempt to ratify a divorce agreement fails.
Opening up the possibility of a delay and removing the immediate threat of a no-deal exit on March 29 marks one of the biggest turning points in the United Kingdom’s labyrinthine Brexit crisis since the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.
In a move which pushes back the Brexit cliff edge by three months to the end of June, May announced she was to give the MPs two votes on March 13-14 if she failed to get a deal approved by March 12.
The government would allow a vote on March 13 at the latest asking whether MPs supported leaving without a deal. If they rejected such an option, on March 14 they would vote on a “short, limited extension” Brexit delay.
“The United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on March 29 if there is explicit consent in the House for that outcome,” May said, though she was clear that the British government was not removing the ultimate threat of a no-deal Brexit.
“An extension cannot take no deal off the table,” May said. “The only way to do that is to revoke Article 50, which I shall not do, or agree a deal.”
May said any extension, not beyond the end of June, would almost certainly have to be a one off and that her government must honour the decision to leave the EU because the credibility of British democracy was at stake.
Earlier, The Sun and Daily Mail newspapers reported that May would formally rule out a no-deal Brexit. Reuters reported on Monday that May’s government was looking at different options, including a possible delay.
Sterling, which has lost about 20 cents against the dollar since the 2016 Brexit referendum, rallied 1.4 percent to $1.3284, the highest since September 2018, and it also rallied strongly against the euro.
“She seems to be giving us a date for a new cliff edge - the end of June,” veteran pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Kenneth Clarke said of May’s statement.
The EU would be ready to approve a short Brexit delay if Britain need more time to ensure parliamentary ratification of their divorce agreement, three EU officials said.
After parliament voted 432-202 against her divorce deal in January, May is trying to negotiate changes to the exit deal she agreed with the EU last year and had promised to bring it back for approval in parliament by March 12 at the latest.
The ultimate outcome remains unclear, with scenarios ranging from a last-minute deal to another referendum that May has warned would reopen the divisions of the 2016 referendum campaign or even scupper Brexit.
May’s decision to give MPs more say over the outcome was an attempt to see off a rebellion by MPs and ministers in her own party who had warned they could vote on Wednesday with opposition parties to grab control of Brexit.
After May’s statement, MPs said there would not now be a vote on Wednesday on the plan for parliament to take control if ministers confirmed May’s pledges.
A delay would increase the chances of a reversal of Brexit, especially as the opposition Labour Party is tilting towards supporting another referendum.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, a leading Brexit-supporting lawmaker in May’s Conservative Party, expressed concern: “If it’s being delayed... as a plot to stop Brexit altogether, then I think that would be the most grievous error that politicians could commit.”
Both of Britain’s main parties are under intense pressure to change course on Brexit: both are deeply divided though both are officially committed to implementing Brexit.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Tuesday that even if May got her Brexit deal approved by parliament then it should be put to a “confirmatory” public vote.
“The prime minister’s botched deal provides no certainty or guarantees for the future,” he said, accusing May of running down the clock in a “grotesquely reckless” way.
But the tilt towards another referendum raises problems for Labour, many of whose traditional voters backed Brexit.
The 2016 referendum, in which 17.4 million voters backed leaving and 16.1 million backed staying, showed a country divided about much more than the EU, and has fuelled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism and modern British identity.
The crisis has left allies and investors puzzled by a country that was for decades touted as a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Kate Holton, Michael Holden and Andrew MacAskill; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Gareth Jones