MPs and business leaders have reacted with fury as Theresa May revealed she will not get a Brexit deal in time for MPs to hold a “meaningful vote” this week.
Critics warned the Prime Minister’s decision meant no-deal Brexit was “hurtling closer”, while one industry group said businesses have “lost all faith in the political process”, amid fears time is running out for an agreement before Britain quits the bloc.
It came as reports on Sunday night hinted a delay to quitting the EU is being considered in London and Brussels. The Telegraph reported Downing Street officials have drawn up a series of options to quell a Tory mutiny, including a delay for up to two months.
Meanwhile, the Guardian suggested Brexit could be delayed until 2021 under plans being examined by senior EU officials.
On Sunday, May pledged that MPs would be given a final say on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU by March 12 at the latest - just 17 days before so-called Brexit Day on March 29.
A cross-party group of MPs seeking to block a no-deal break immediately confirmed they would be tabling an amendment giving the House of Commons the power to demand a delay to Brexit if an agreement is not in place by mid-March.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who has drawn up the plan with Conservative former minister Sir Oliver Letwin, said it would now become the “real meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal.
“The Prime Minister isn’t acting responsibly in the national interest, but MPs from all sides need to do so,” she said.
Speaking to reporters on the flight out to an EU-League of Arab States summit, May insisted she was sticking to her timetable for the UK to leave in less than five weeks’ time.
“It is still within our grasp to leave the European Union with a deal on March 29,” she said.
However, her acknowledgement that she cannot get a deal to put to MPs this week, means there will now be a further series of votes in the Commons on an amendable Government motion on Wednesday.
May denied collective Cabinet responsibility had broken down after three pro-EU ministers signalled that they could vote for the Cooper amendment.
Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and David Gauke said there was now a clear Commons majority in favour of extending the Article 50 withdrawal process rather than see a “disastrous” no-deal break.
The Prime Minister said it was “not a surprise to anybody” that there were strong views around the Cabinet table on the issue.
But with reports that up 100 Tory MPs could be prepared to defy the whips and back the amendment – with up to 20 ministerial resignations – May said a delay would not resolve the deadlock.
“Now, often people talk about the extension of Article 50 as if that will actually solve the issue. Of course it won’t. It defers the point of decision,” she said.
“There will always come a point where we have to decide whether we accept the deal that’s been negotiated or not. And that will be a decision for every member of Parliament across the House.”
Business leaders reacted with dismay to the latest Brexit delay.
Edwin Morgan, interim director general of the Institute of Directors, said: “There appears to be little realistic chance of a deal being agreed and the necessary legislation getting through by 29 March.
“Businesses do not want to drag out the uncertainty and would much prefer to reach a deal by the end of next month.
“However, it now seems hard to envisage an exit without a limited, technical extension to allow time for parliament to finalise our exit.”
He added: “Businesses have lost all faith in the political process and as those first in the firing line of no-deal, they deserve to know more.”
Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director general, said: “This is the latest signal to businesses that no-deal is hurtling closer. It must be averted.
“Every day without a deal means less investment and fewer jobs created.
“That’s the cost of running down the clock, and it’s irresponsible to treat that as a price worth paying.”
The intervention of the three ministers infuriated some Tory Brexiteers, who demanded they were sacked – a call reportedly echoed by some ministers in private.
However Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who was one of the leaders of the official Leave campaign in the referendum cautioned against a “heresy hunt”.
“They are good colleagues,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“I think it would be completely inappropriate, given the nature of the conversations that the country is having about Brexit, to try to strike macho postures when what we really need is unity.”
May is using her attendance at the summit to hold a series of one-to-one meetings with key EU figures, including European Council president Donald Tusk who she met on Sunday.
Talks are due to resume in Brussels on Tuesday in an attempt to resolve the impasse over the backstop, with the Government seeking legally binding assurances it will not leave Britain tied to EU rules indefinitely.
“We are still in that negotiation. We are still talking to the EU about various ways in which we can find a resolution to the issue that Parliament raised,” May said.
Downing Street has been at pains to play down the prospect of any breakthrough at Sharm el-Sheikh.
However Labour said the latest delay to the meaningful vote was “the height of irresponsibility and an admission of failure”.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “Theresa May is recklessly running down the clock in a desperate attempt to force MPs to choose between her deal and no-deal.
“Parliament cannot stand by and allow this to happen.”