British parliamentarians will decide on Thursday whether to delay leaving the European Union for at least three months after a chaotic day that saw Prime Minister Theresa May suffer more blows to her Brexit strategy and one junior cabinet minister resign.
Britain is supposed to leave the EU on March 29 and Ms. May has been struggling for weeks to win parliamentary approval for a withdrawal agreement she struck with the EU in November. The deal has been rejected twice by members of Parliament, but on Wednesday, Ms. May indicated that she will try once again to get it approved.
Ms. May told MPs that she will seek an extension to the deadline, but the length of the delay will depend on MPs approving her agreement. If the deal is backed by the House of Commons before an EU leaders summit that starts on March 20, she will seek a delay until the end of June. If MPs don’t back the deal by then, it will be up to EU leaders to decide how long the extension should last. Parliament, she added, “needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken.”
The move will be seen as a way of putting pressure on a group of Ms. May’s fellow Conservative MPs who have led the opposition to her deal because they believe it keeps the country too closely tied to the EU. Ms. May has now essentially told these MPs that if they don’t support her deal, the EU could decide to delay Brexit for years. But her authority has been badly shaken. She’s already seen her agreement rejected twice by large margins and MPs could vote against her proposal on Thursday or back another option such as revoking Brexit, backing another deal or hold a referendum. “I will see to it that we keep voting [Ms. May’s agreement] down however many times it’s brought back, whatever pressure we’re put under and come what may,” said Steve Baker, a Tory MP who doesn’t support the deal.
On Wednesday, dozens of Tory MPs and some cabinet ministers also defied the Prime Minister and either abstained or voted with the opposition on a pair of Brexit motions. Events became so bizarre that Tory MPs were told to back a government motion and then not to back it, only to see the motion approved by a wide margin. Sarah Newton, a junior minister for disabled people in the work and pensions department, also resigned to vote against the government.
Among the non-binding motions passed by MPs on Wednesday against Ms. May’s wishes, was one ruling out leaving without a Brexit deal under any circumstances. That ran against Ms. May’s negotiating strategy, which included keeping the no-deal option on the table to put pressure on the EU.
The EU would have to approve any extension to the March 29 deadline and on Wednesday EU officials seemed lukewarm to a delay. “Why would we extend these discussions?” the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier asked in a speech before the European Parliament. “Because the discussions on [a deal], that is done and dusted. She has the withdrawal agreement. It is there.” He added that the EU had done all it could and that it was up to the British government to indicate what it wants. “What will their choice be? What will be the clear line they take? That is the question we need an answer to now. That has to be answered before a decision on an extension … The risk of no deal has never been higher.”
There’s also growing outrage among many business leaders in Britain over the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the inability of Ms. May to secure a withdrawal agreement. Businesses, farmers and consumers only found out on Wednesday what tariffs the government would impose or remove on thousands of products if there was no deal. The release left many business organizations, unions and farm groups scrambling to assess the impact. “It’s staggering that we are in this position with only days until we are due to leave,” said Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Steve Turner, a senior official at the Unite labour union, said that some of the tariff changes “would be an act of economic vandalism.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said the uncertainty surrounding Brexit was affecting the economy and he warned that “leaving with ‘no deal’ would mean significant disruption.” During an economic update, Mr. Hammond also issued a rebuke to the Tory rebels who have argued for a “managed Brexit” that would see Britain leave the EU without the withdrawal agreement and negotiate a trade deal instead. “The idea that there is some simple, readily available fix that can be deployed to avoid the consequences of a no-deal Brexit is, I am afraid, just wrong,” Mr. Hammond said.
The update included a downward revision of the government’s forecast for economic growth this year. Growth is now expected to be 1.4 per cent instead of 1.6 per cent forecast last October, owing to the Brexit uncertainty. The economy is forecast to bounce back in the following years, but only if Britain leaves with an agreement.