LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May admitted Tuesday for the first time that Brexit could be delayed, as the two main parties in Parliament struggle over how — or even if — Britain should leave the European Union.
May told lawmakers that if they reject her Brexit withdrawal agreement again next month, they will have an opportunity to vote on whether to ask the E.U. to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled March 29 departure date.
May said European leaders would probably grant an extension only once and that any delay should be “short and limited.” She suggested that an extension until June would be best so Britain would not have to take part in the next round of elections for the European Parliament.
This was a major concession by May, who has long insisted that her Brexit deal was the best and only one on offer and that it would be reckless to delay leaving the E.U.
Her acceptance of a possible extension indicates how much she and her weak government have ceded control over Brexit to an assertive but divided Parliament.
Hardcore Brexiteers fear, and those who want to stay in the E.U. hope, that a delay might lead to the end of Brexit.
“My suspicion is that any delay to Brexit is a plot to stop Brexit,” Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg tweeted. “This would be the most grievous error that politicians could commit.”
But May remains intent on making Brexit happen, and there isn’t yet enough momentum behind any alternatives.
Since Parliament overwhelmingly rejected her withdrawal deal last month, May has appealed to reluctant European leaders to give her a legally binding assurance that Britain won’t be chained to E.U. customs and trade regulations forever, in an effort to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open and invisible. So far, May has not made demonstrable progress.
Meanwhile, the British prime minister has faced a buzz saw of opposition over her handling of Brexit from both moderates and hard-liners in her own Conservative Party.
The hardcore Brexiteers, led by figures such as former foreign minister Boris Johnson, think May’s compromise Brexit plan would keep Britain tied too closely to Europe.
May was also lashed by the resignations last week of three prominent moderates who want Britain to remain in the bloc and fear May is about to drive the country over a cliff edge into a disastrous “no-deal” Brexit.
On Tuesday, May bowed to pressure from a trio of cabinet ministers who reportedly threatened to resign if she did not give Parliament the chance to delay Brexit if her deal failed to win approval again.
May is now offering the lawmakers a series of possible votes, one after the other.
The prime minister promised Parliament it would have a “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal by March 12 — about two weeks before the deadline to leave.
If Parliament again rejects her deal, lawmakers would proceed the next day with a vote on whether to support or rule out leaving the E.U. without a withdrawal deal in place. The no-deal scenario, though favored by hard-line Brexiteers, is seen by many as a high-risk option, possibly causing deep harm to the British and European economies. A British government report released on Tuesday assessed that a no-deal Brexit would disrupt trade, would probably increase prices on food and cars and could cost British businesses $17 billion a year.
If Parliament rejects May’s deal and rejects leaving with no deal, it will be asked whether it wants to seek a months-long delay.
“I believe that if we have to, we will ultimately make a success of no-deal,” May told lawmakers on Tuesday, to a chorus of hoots and boos. But she was clear that the best way forward was to approve her still-to-be-amended deal.
Senior E.U. diplomats involved in the negotiations say they think European leaders would be willing to offer a three-month extension if May can convince them she needs the time to wrap up a deal. They say thorny legal questions could stand in the way of a longer delay and force a no-deal departure at the end of June if nothing is agreed in the meantime.
After May’s statement, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, told the House of Commons that May’s Brexit bungling is already having real-life consequences: “Factories relocating abroad, jobs being lost, investment being canceled, thousands of workers at sites across Britain’s towns and cities are hearing rumors and fearing for the worst.”
Corbyn has faced criticism for his own handling of Brexit. Nine Labour lawmakers who support remaining in Europe resigned last week.
Together, the Labour and Conservative defectors formed the Independent Group, united in their opposition to Brexit. In snap polls, the group appeared to be the third most popular in Britain.
With more lawmakers threatening to leave Labour, Corbyn on Monday softened his opposition to a second Brexit referendum and said his party would support a second people’s vote to stop what he called “a damaging Tory Brexit.”
While Labour Party delegates voted in September to back a second referendum, Corbyn had been cold to the idea. Many Labour voters — especially in Wales and the north of England — want Britain to leave the European Union.
In her remarks Tuesday, May offered no support for a second referendum.
Several lawmakers asked how she would vote if, on March 13, there was indeed a chance to weigh in on whether to support a “no deal” Brexit.
“Will the prime minister do a brave thing and do once what is best for the country, not what is best for any of us,” Jess Phillips, a Labour lawmaker, said as she gestured to other lawmakers in the chamber. “Will she at least vote herself against no deal?”
May responded by saying that she would proceed with trying to leave the European Union.
Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.