Brexit delay a step closer as Remainer rebels and EU leaders pile on pressure

The prime minister is said to have offered MPs a chance to delay Brexit in two weeks in a bid to stop them rebelling on Wednesday

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Monday 25 February 2019 19:44
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Donald Tusk- An extension would be a rational solution to avoid a chaotic no-deal Brexit

The UK is a step closer to a delayed Brexit after it emerged Theresa May has mooted the idea to win over Remainer rebels, while EU leaders also called for an extension to negotiations.

The prime minister is said to have offered to make time for a vote in a fortnight allowing for a two-month delay beyond 29 March in return for rebels – including at least three cabinet ministers – calling off a revolt on Wednesday.

Cabinet sources confirmed the idea had been put to rebels, but The Independent has also been told that Brexiteers on Ms May’s front bench would be furious if the plan was followed through.

At a summit in Egypt on Monday morning, a string of European leaders and EU figures made clear their desire for a delay to Brexit in order to avoid a no-deal departure.

It comes as Ms May desperately seeks changes to the UK’s existing withdrawal deal in a bid to make it more acceptable to her party, with her attorney general Geoffrey Cox heading out to Brussels on Tuesday for further talks.

On Wednesday, rebel MPs – including work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd, justice secretary David Gauke and business secretary Greg Clark – are threatening to back a plan which would see the Commons seize control of the Brexit process and pass legislation that would delay it past 29 March.

Ms May is set to make a statement on Tuesday in which she will attempt to dissuade them from doing so, claiming that it would weaken her hand in Brussels negotiations.

But it was reported in the Evening Standard on Monday that she could also offer them an alternative way to prevent no deal, albeit one on her own terms, two weeks from now.

Asked about the possible plan, Ms May’s spokesperson did not outright deny it, but said instead: “She said that’s not something she wants to do. She wants to leave the European Union on 29 March.”

But the plan’s appearance will anger Brexiteers – both in cabinet, who feel that Remainers should resign if they don’t like the prime minister’s approach, and on the back benches, who fear a delay could be used as a cudgel to make them back Ms May’s Brexit agreement.

Remainer rebels may also be unimpressed at the offer, which pushes a vote to block no deal to within days of the moment that the UK is currently due to crash out of the EU, regardless of whether Britain has an agreement.

Ms May’s personal opposition to an extension was laid out by European Council president Donald Tusk on Monday, who said he had tried to convince the prime minister of the merits of a delay.

He told reporters at a summit in Egypt: “I believe that in the situation we are in, an extension would be a rational decision but Prime Minister May still believes she will be able to avoid this scenario.”

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Mr Tusk said he and the prime minister had discussed the “legal and political consequences of a possible extension” of Britain’s two-year limit on Brexit negotiations.

He added: “For me it’s absolutely clear that there’s no majority in the House of Commons to approve a deal, we will face an alternative, a chaotic Brexit or an extension.

“The less time there is until the 29 March the greater the likelihood of an extension. This is an objective fact, not our intention or plan, but an objective fact.”

His comments came after Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar backed a “long extension”, suggesting that it would be better than the disastrous consequences of no deal.

Mr Varadkar told reporters: “I’d certainly rather see an extension than seeing the UK leave without a deal.

“A long extension creates a complication in relation to the European elections, but that’s a small complication relative to the impact on our economy.”

Angela Merkel is also understood to have asked the prime minister about a possible extension during a meeting at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.

At the same meeting Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte warned that Britain was “sleep walking into a no-deal scenario” and that as the UK’s “best friends” EU countries were urging Britain to “wake up”.

During a brief press conference at the close of the EU-Arab summit in Egypt, the prime minister, however, continued to insist that leaving the bloc on the 29 March was “within our grasp”.

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