Prime Minister Theresa May has pushed back Parliament’s chance to vote on the United Kingdom’s Brexit deal until 12 March—just 17 days before the country is supposed to leave the European Union.
Speaking as she travelled to an EU-Arab League summit in Egypt, May ruled out holding another so-called “meaningful vote” on Wednesday, 27 February as originally planned, because she has another meeting with EU officials and the Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, the day before.
Despite the change, May insists that leaving on 29 March is still “within our grasp” and that discussions with the European Union remain “positive.”
May lost her first “meaningful vote” last month after delaying it from December. It resulted in the biggest Commons defeat for a government since 1924. While she survived a subsequent vote of no confidence by MPs, she was forced to tell her party that she would not stand as leader in the next general election (currently scheduled for 2022).
Delaying the “meaningful vote” for a second time has raised expectations that the U.K. government will seek an extension to Article 50, the official mechanism that a country must use to trigger its withdrawal from the European Union.
On paper, once an EU member state invokes Article 50, it has two years to negotiate its exit—though no country has ever done so until now. And depending on which news source one reads, the extension could last anywhere between two months and two years, with the United Kingdom potentially leaving the EU in 2021.
Members of Parliament from all parties, as well as business groups, have described the delay as “desperate.”
Adam Marshall, director general at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “We are well into the eleventh hour. … Delaying the vote until just two weeks before the U.K.’s planned departure from the EU raises serious concerns about the timeline of the parliamentary process and whether there is sufficient window to reach an agreement and pass the necessary legislation to avoid a no-deal exit.”
Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament, called the move “surprising” and “reckless.”
“Kicking the can down the road only adds to the crippling uncertainty for businesses on both sides of the channel,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
The lack of progress in getting MPs to back the EU’s Brexit package has caused deep divisions across both the government and the main opposition party.
Over the weekend, three members of May’s Cabinet said they were prepared to defy her and vote to extend Article 50 if there was no breakthrough this week. Media reports also say senior government figures want her to stand down as early as this May following local elections.
Last week saw three of her MPs defect from the party and join an independent group of eight former anti-Brexit Labour MPs who quit over frustrations with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership style, his stance on the EU, and his failure to address alleged antisemitism and bullying within the party ranks.