Theresa May heads to Brussels on Thursday to plead for a three-month extension to Brexit amid a domestic backlash after she blamed MPs for Britain’s political impasse.
In a statement at Downing Street on Wednesday night, the prime minister criticised squabbling MPs for the need to request an extension of Article 50, the mechanism that triggers Britain’s exit from the EU, saying it was a “matter of great personal regret for me”.
Mrs May is hoping to get her withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons on a third attempt at a “meaningful vote”, probably on Tuesday, despite having already seen it voted down by 230 votes in January and 149 votes earlier this month.
Britain is meant to leave the EU at the end of next week, March 29, if Brussels does not agree an extension to Article 50, the exit mechanism.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, said EU leaders could consent to an extension if the UK parliament votes next week for Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement.
“We can definitely talk positively about a short extension,” Ms Merkel said in a statement to the Bundestag ahead of Thursday’s EU summit in Brussels, although the question of the “legality of the European elections” at the end of May must also be taken into account.
But there would need to be a “more fundamental discussion” if the withdrawal agreement again fails to muster a majority in parliament.
Mrs May said on Wednesday night that the public was “tired of the infighting” and political games and arcane procedural rows in parliament. Her comments prompted fury from some MPs, including Wes Streeting, a Labour MP. He said MPs had been subjected to credible death threats in the past few years.
“Her speech was incendiary and irresponsible. If any harm comes to any of us, she will have to accept her share of responsibility,” he said.
Lisa Nandy, a Labour MP who has been tempted to vote for Mrs May’s deal, called the prime minister’s language “dangerous and reckless”.
But Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, defended the speech, saying it was reasonable for the prime minister to express her own and the public’s frustration. “All of us . . . have a special responsibility because a decision cannot happen without parliament giving its approval,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
“What Theresa May is saying is that we face a moment of national decision unless parliament can come to a consensus.”
Mr Hunt pleaded with MPs to back the deal next week to enable Britain to “move on to the next chapter” and continue with the next stage of Brexit negotiations. The alternative would be a period of “extreme unpredictability”, he warned.
Patience with the prime minister is running out among Conservative MPs, with some signalling to Mrs May that she ought to resign soon. David Evennett, a Tory backbencher, told the prime minister this week that unless she could resolve the crisis “your time will have come to an end”.
Mrs May has written to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, asking for a three-month delay to Brexit. But the EU has responded suggesting that this would only be possible if the prime minister can get her deal through the House of Commons first.
She will arrive at 1pm at the Europa building in Brussels and is expected to address the first session of the EU summit before European leaders hold talks at about 2.30pm — without her — on the issue of Article 50 extension.
Until a week ago Mrs May had been suggesting that a long extension would also be possible, but she was forced to drop that position after pressure from Eurosceptic cabinet ministers including Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom.
Mr Hunt said that if the deal is voted down next week and there is an EU emergency summit — expected around March 28 — there could be the offer of a longer extension. But he warned: “We don’t know what the length would be and it could have some very onerous conditions.”
For example, the EU could insist that Britain could only delay Brexit if it held a second referendum, the foreign secretary suggested.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has been among EU leaders reluctant to let the UK extend Article 50.
But Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission, said EU leaders were likely to grant a delay to Brexit even if MPs did not back Mrs May’s withdrawal deal next week. “There will be some compromise to get more time,” he told the BBC.
Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn is heading to Brussels on Thursday to meet EU leaders including Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras.
The Labour leader will try to position himself as the unity figure trying to lead cross-party talks, despite having snubbed an initial Number 10 meeting last night because former Labour MP Chuka Umunna was there.
“It’s time for MPs to work together, find a consensus that can get through parliament, be negotiated with the EU in time and bring leave and remain voters together,” he said on Thursday morning.