Brexit: EU leaders agree delay until end of October as May blames MPs for stopping UK departure

PM will only quit when withdrawal agreement is approved, downplays effect of long delay 

Jon Stone
Thursday 11 April 2019 12:42 BST
Theresa May blames MPs for Brexit delay following EU summit

Theresa May is set to enrage her critics within the Conservative party after setting herself up to stay on as prime minister until the winter while presiding over a long delay to Brexit.

She told MPs just weeks ago that she was “not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June” as prime minister and said she would resign once this stage of talks was complete – prompting her rivals to gear up for a summer leadership contest.

But as EU leaders met on Wednesday night to decide on another lengthy Article 50 extension, a Conservative source said the prime minister’s promised departure was tied to passing the withdrawal agreement rather than a specific date.

After six hours of talks late into the night leaders agreed to extend the new Brexit deadline until 31 October, with a potential summit in June to review the situation.

Ms May tried to play down the consequences of the expected long extension as she arrived at the meeting on Wednesday evening, telling reporters that “what is important is that any extension enables us to leave at the point we ratify the withdrawal agreement” rather than the length.

Asked whether the 30 June date was still a red line for the prime minister, the Tory source said: “She understands that the Conservative Party feels a sense that new leadership is required for the second phase of negotiations. That was the commitment she gave to her parliamentary colleagues and that’s one she stands by.”

Speaking at a 2.30am press conference after talks closed, the PM again blamed her own MPs for the delay, telling reporters: "Over the last three months I have voted three times to leave the European Union. If sufficient members of parliament had voted with me in January we would already be out of the European Union."

Back in London Ms May’s detractors were already setting themselves up for a fight, with former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith warning that the PM must be forced out of the job if she returns with a long extension.

“I hate to say this but the reality is if we end up going and accepting a year-long, or even a nine-month extension, I think we’re going to have egg all over our face,” he told Channel 4 News at the same time as the PM addressed EU leaders over the channel in Brussels.

“It’s time for us to bite the bullet and say, look, we can’t do this any longer, we have to make a change.

“The whole thing is an utter car crash and I think what has to be established now is I think the cabinet has to have a moment with the prime minister and say this can’t go on, I’m afraid, it really can’t go on.”

But the prime minister’s allies simultaneously rallied around her. Justice secretary David Gauke said that there was no rush to change leader, and that “it may well be the last thing we need as a country is a leadership election”.

Mr Gauke told BBC Radio 5Live’s Emma Barnett programme: “If it helps the country she will walk, if it helps the country for her to stay she will stay. She will do what she thinks is the right thing for the country.”

Ahead of a late night summit in Brussels EU leaders signalled that they were looking at giving the prime minister an extension of either nine or 12 months. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has suggested that such an extension could have a flexible end date, and terminate shortly after the withdrawal agreement is approved by the UK parliament.

After pressure from France, which argued strongly against a long extension until 2020, the Council agreed to a slightly shorter delay until October with a stock-taking exercise in June. The review at the start of the summer is expected to assess UK co-operation during and after May’s European elections.

European Council president Donald Tusk said at a 2am press conference: “Let me finish with a message to our British friends: this extension is as flexible as I expected, an a little bit shorter than I expected, but it’s still enough to find the best possible solution. Please do not waste this time.”

He added: “I think it’s always best to have a piece of something than all of nothing.”

'Please do not waste this time': Donald Tusk issues UK warning as Brexit is extended to October

The new 31 October deadline also aligns with the end of the current Commission presidency. Speaking alongside Mr Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker joked: "I like the decision we have taken tonight because the end date has been fixed on the 31 October. I have to leave my job on 1 November. So my guess will be that we won't have an overnight session because if we have one I'll have to leave the meeting at midnight."

Ms May is understood to have given a one-hour presentation to the 27 leaders setting out her case for an extension to June 30, with a break clause allowing the UK to leave as soon as her Brexit deal is ratified by MPs.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in