MPs vote Thursday on whether to seek a Brexit delay, as the chaotic process to end Britain’s 46-year membership of the EU plunges the country into deep political crisis.
Amid mounting fears about about the likely traumatic economic cost of crashing out of the EU without a deal, the press slammed a “meltdown” as Prime Minister Theresa May lost control over her own ministers.
The embattled May agreed to ask for a postponement with just two weeks to go until the March 29 scheduled departure date.
She has warned that unless MPs drop their opposition to the draft divorce deal she has negotiated with Brussels, any delay would likely be lengthy.
She has also called for a third vote on the Brexit text, expected on Monday or Tuesday ahead of an EU summit at the end of next week.
But the dramatic and chaotic events of the past few days in the House of Commons have exposed her lack of control over events.
MPs voted massively on Tuesday to reject her Brexit deal for a second time, and then to defy her and rule out a “no deal” exit in all circumstances.
The pound soared after the “no deal” vote but edged down on Thursday, as Britain could still crash out of the bloc on March 29.
The CBI business lobby group said most of its members wanted a delay to Brexit but said MPs must take a “new approach”.
“Any extra time must be used by MPs to finally craft a solution that protects livelihoods and communities across the UK,” said CBI deputy director general Josh Hardie.
On Wednesday, the government announced a series of draconian measures in case Britain crashes out on March 29, including scrapping tariffs on most imports and not applying checks on the Irish border.
In a motion to be put to MPs at 1700 GMT, May calls for a delay to Brexit, and sets out two possible scenarios.
If lawmakers accept her Brexit deal by next Wednesday, she will ask EU leaders at the summit starting Thursday for a short delay to June 30 to allow time for the treaty to be ratified.
But if they reject it, the motion warns the delay could be much longer, forcing Britain to take part in European Parliament elections in May.
EU Council chief Donald Tusk said Thursday that the bloc could approve a long postponement “if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.
Tusk’s words reflected Brussels’ long-standing position that a softer Brexit is possible if May abandons red lines, especially her opposition to being in a customs union with Europe.
But other EU leaders have warned that they may not support an extension if Britain cannot be clear about what it wants.
MPs will attempt to put forward alternatives through amendments to Thursday’s vote, including one calling for a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership, although this is not expected to pass.
The parliamentary deadlock reflects the deep divisions in Britain almost three years after the 2016 referendum, which saw Britons narrowly vote to leave the European Union.
May’s authority has been left severely damaged by a series of defeats and rebellions by her own ministers, including four Cabinet colleagues who failed to back the government in Wednesday’s “no deal” vote.
“Chaos reigns” screamed the Daily Mail‘s headline, while The Times front page thundered “Brexit meltdown”.
Brexit-supporting MPs in May’s Conservative party, and her allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), fear the deal she agreed with the EU would leave Britain tied to the EU for years to come.
But some eurosceptics warn that by continuing to block it, they have raised the possibility that the whole Brexit process could be undermined.
Talks are likely to continue with MPs over the coming days — and one lawmaker made public speculation that May herself might offer to resign as the price to secure her deal.
“This chaos can’t continue. Something has to give. We need an orderly Brexit on Mar 29,” former Conservative minister George Freeman tweeted.
“If, to get the votes for that, the PM has to promise that she will go after the withdrawal treaty is secure, to allow a new leader to reunite the country and oversee the next stage, she should.”