Theresa May has admitted Britain is now in “a crisis” over Brexit as she faced a fresh Tory revolt over plans to delay the UK’s departure from the EU.
Just 10 days from the scheduled exit day of March 29, the prime minister told her cabinet that she would write to Brussels to request an extension of the formal process for leaving the European Union.
May looked set to request a short, three-month pause to June 30, but her refusal to rule out a much longer delay sparked a backlash from Brexiteer ministers.
The heated 90-minute Cabinet discussion of Brexit also included heavy criticism of Speaker Bercow’s refusal to allow another Commons vote on May’s deal unless it was substantially changed.
The PM’s official spokesman said she had warned earlier this month that “we would be in a crisis” if MPs failed to support her proposals. “Events yesterday tell you that situation has come to pass,” he said.
One cabinet source told HuffPost UK that the PM failed to give clarity on which delay period she wanted, stating: “She spoke as if she was setting out the options, not telling us what she wanted”.
Others claimed that May “sat like a nodding dog, not making a proper decision”.
Andrea Leadsom is said to have angrily told colleagues: “This used to be the cabinet that would deliver Brexit and now from what I’m hearing it’s not.”
Leadsom, Liam Fox and Chris Grayling all spoke out strongly against a long delay, leaving Remainer colleagues to suspect they may quit rather than support such a plan.
Brexit secretary Steve Barclay was among 188 Tory MPs who voted last week against any long extension of the formal Article 50 process that governs the UK’s exit from the EU.
May is set to send her letter either on Tuesday or Wednesday, ahead of the crucial summit in Brussels where she needs agreement from all 27 EU states to allow a delay.
One government source said that the cabinet meeting saw “some outspoken contributions”, but stressed “everyone wanted to get to the right place”.
What united ministers was a “healthy dislike” of Bercow’s decision on Monday to bar the PM from putting her deal to a vote for a third time. No.10 refused to deny that May had told her ministers that now “Parliament is a laughing stock”.
The Speaker cited historical precedent, stretching back to 1604, that suggests the same Commons motion cannot be put multiple times after it has been rejected by MPs.
The Commons has twice inflicted crushing defeats on May’s Brexit plans, the first time in January by 230 votes, and last week by 149 votes.
May’s problems stem from the fact that she is unlikely to have her deal approved by parliament before Thursday’s summit, forcing her to request flexibility from the EU for both a long and short delay.
No.10 still hasn’t given up hope of swinging enough Tory Brexiteer and DUP MPs behind her deal, and she met Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith for talks on Tuesday to try to win them round ahead of a fresh vote next week.
Asked directly about the length of a delay, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters: “Will an extension be short or long? Has to be one or the other. A longer extension has to be linked to a new political process.”
EU council president Donald Tusk has been lobbying European capitals to push for a Brexit delay of up to two years, to allow a new set of negotiations on a softer exit such as a customs union.
However, different countries in the EU27 are split on whether the allow the UK a long or a short delay.
French Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau said Britain must come up with a reason for any Brexit delay. “Grant an extension – what for? Time is not a solution, it’s a method. If there is an objective and a strategy and it has to come from London.”
And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We will see what Theresa May says to us, what her wishes are – we will try to respond to those.
“Too much is in flux. I will fight until the final hour of the deadline of March 29 that we have an orderly exit.”
Backers of a second referendum also believe a longer delay will allow them time to plan the reversal of Brexit altogether.
Labour MP Gareth Thomas, on behalf of the pro-EU ‘Best for Britain’ campaign said: “The government have finally woken up to what the country has known for months. The UK faces a crisis of its own making.
“We need to extend Article 50 and provide time for the only credible solution to this Brexit mess - a public vote.”