British Prime Minister Theresa May executed a momentous climbdown in her Brexit strategy on Wednesday, requesting a three-month delay to Britain’s departure from the EU and blaming lawmakers for the mess.
After promising on scores of occasions that Brexit would take place on March 29, May finally bowed to the inevitable consequence of her failure to secure the support of Parliament for her deal and asked the EU to extend the divorce process.
It was a striking admission of personal failure for a Prime Minister who had come to office on the promise of delivering the result of the divisive 2016 referendum.
But in a stern statement in Downing Street on Wednesday evening, May did not accept responsibility for the chaos, instead blaming Members of Parliament for failing to back her deal. She said the British public wanted them to “get on with it” and said it was “high time” for them to take a decision.
Calling the delay to Brexit a “matter of great personal regret,” May said the British public “have had enough” and are tired of political infighting. “So far Parliament has done everything possible to avoid making a choice. All MPs have been willing to say is what they do not want,” she said.
Earlier, May told the House of Commons she had written to European Council President Donald Tusk, asking for a three-month delay to Brexit, until June 30.
Tusk said in Brussels later that a short extension “should be possible,” but on one condition – that the UK Parliament passes May’s Brexit deal.
Just last week the Prime Minister warned the House of Commons that a longer extension would be needed if lawmakers failed to vote in favor of her Brexit deal. Downing Street hoped that the prospect of a long delay would force rebel lawmakers into line.
But Brexiteer members of her Cabinet were reportedly furious at the suggestion May could ask the EU for a delay of up to two years. There was a mutinous mood at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, according to multiple reports.
By Wednesday morning, May had backed down.
The Prime Minister told the House of Commons later that she intends to bring her twice-rejected deal back for third vote. “If that vote is passed, the extension will give the House time to consider the Withdrawal Agreement bill. If not, the House will have to decide how to proceed,” May said.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK’s main opposition Labour Party, said May has led the country into a “full-scale national crisis.”
“Incompetence, failure and intransigence from the Prime Minister have brought us to this point,” he told MPs.
He promised to hold his own meetings with UK lawmakers on Wednesday and leaders in Brussels on Thursday in order to “break the deadlock.” However, in a sign of the political paralysis gripping Westminster, Corbyn walked out of one of the meetings when he found that a breakaway former Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, was present.
May to discuss extension options in Brussels
Amid the chaos, May will meet EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday where she will discuss her request to extend Article 50 – the legal process for Britain leaving the bloc.
If an extension is agreed by EU leaders, the UK will avoid crashing out of the EU without a deal.
However European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had “formally warned” May against delaying Brexit beyond May 23, spokesman Margaritis Schinas said.
“The Withdrawal has to be complete before the 23rd May otherwise we risk facing institutional difficulties and legal uncertainty given the European Elections’ date,” Schinas added.
The UK appears to think that, since the new session of the European Parliament doesn’t begin until July 1, it can remain in the EU until June 30 without holding elections. An internal European Commission briefing document, seen by CNN, states that the UK must leave by May 23 to avoid holding elections.
Tusk acknowledged that May’s proposed end date June 30 “creates a series of questions of a legal and political nature” that would have to be debated, he said.
Earlier on Wednesday Juncker hinted that leaders may be forced to put off a formal decision on May’s request to another, emergency summit next week.
“We will probably have to meet again next week, because Mrs May has not got agreement for anything either in her Cabinet or her Parliament,” he told German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk on Wednesday.
Juncker also reiterated that the EU would not enter any more negotiations with the British Prime Minister. “We are not in a state of war with the UK, but a state of negotiation [and] the negotiations are finished,” he said, according to PA.
The Prime Minister’s Brexit timetable was thrown into turmoil last week when the Speaker of the House of Commons, thwarted her plans to hold another vote on her deal this week.
Bercow ruled that, according to parliamentary procedure, the government could not repeatedly put a motion before lawmakers if it had been previously rejected in the same session.
CNN’s Luke McGee contributed to this story.