The prime minister bowed to pressure to allow the Commons to decide on extending Article 50 – to head off mass ministerial resignations.
The pledge was given in a statement to MPs, despite Ms May insisting repeatedly that the UK would leave the EU on 29 March, as scheduled.
She was forced to backtrack after around 15 minsters – led by David Gauke, the justice secretary, Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, and Greg Clark, the business secretary – threatened a revolt.
If crashing out is rejected, “the government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether parliament wants to seek a short, limited extension to Article 50”, Ms May added.
The prime minister sought to reassure pro-Brexit Conservative MPs that she remained opposed to an extension, which “cannot take no-deal off the table”.
It would require the unanimous agreement of all 27 other EU members, amid hints they would demand a significantly longer delay to provide greater certainty.
Ms May refused to say how long the “short, limited extension” would be, saying only that it should be “as short as possible”.
Ken Clarke, the former Tory cabinet minister, warned of “a new cliff edge at the end of June” – predicting the UK would “continue the present pantomime performance through the next 3 months”.
The climbdown triggered a row at a pre-statement cabinet meeting, when Liam Fox, the trade secretary, Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader, are all thought to have voiced opposition.
In the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn said Ms May was “exclusively” responsible for the crisis, saying: “The prime minister has become quite the expert at kicking the can down the road, but the problem is the road is running out.”
“PM is not taking No Deal off the table at all. Just holding out possibility of a short delay, too short for a #peoplesvote” she tweeted.
Significantly, the prime minister refused to say whether she would “argue for no-deal or argue for extension”, if her deal is thrown out again on 12 March.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper hinted she would continue to press her amendment tomorrow, to legally compel Ms May to seek an Article 50 extension if her deal is not approved.
Suggesting the legal force was crucial, Ms Cooper warned: “Promised votes have been pulled before, Commons motions have been ignored before. If there is no legislation in place, what assurances do we have that the government will abide by any votes?”
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