Theresa May is considering a plan to delay Brexit and stop the U.K. leaving the European Union with no deal next month, according to people familiar with the situation.
The prime minister is expected to allow her Cabinet to discuss extending the deadline beyond March 29 at a crunch meeting on Tuesday, one of the people said. May would then reveal the Cabinet’s conclusions in an announcement to Parliament later in the day.
While no final decision has been taken, putting off the U.K.’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU would be a huge political gamble. On one hand, it would avert mass resignations from pro-EU ministers in May’s team. But it would also risk a destabilizing backlash from euroskeptic Conservatives.
Even with the premier likely to carry on with her attempts to get a deal done on time, a postponement would be a major climbdown for the British leader, who has spent the past two years insisting that the U.K. will leave the EU on schedule. It comes within hours of another major U-turn: that of opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn deciding to back a second Brexit referendum.
The pound strengthened as much as 0.4 percent in early Asia-Pacific trading Tuesday, reaching $1.3147, its highest level this month. This latest crop of Brexit news is welcomed by investors and businesses because it could mean more time to prepare, or even rethink a strategy that had many worried the U.K. would crash out without a deal.
In just over a month, the U.K. is meant to be departing the union it’s belonged to for 40 years but the outlook has never looked more uncertain. May’s hands are increasingly tied by an unpopular divorce deal she sealed with the EU but that Parliament has rejected by a landslide. Brexit has proved to be such a divisive issue that both mainstream parties have suffered defections, businesses are panicking, and voters are exasperated.
Delaying Brexit has the potential to split May’s Cabinet and her ruling party, triggering a rebellion from Brexit-supporting Tories who might even try to bring down her government.
But May’s allies accept she has run out of time and must now choose between angering her pro-Brexit colleagues, and alienating as many as 20 pro-European ministers who are threatening to quit to vote against her and stop a no-deal exit from the EU in Parliament on Wednesday.
Under the premier’s plan this week:
May will chair a Cabinet discussion on extending Brexit at 9:30 a.m. in London on Tuesday May will update Parliament on the Cabinet’s decision after 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday The government will propose motion on the Brexit state-of-play by Tuesday night The House of Commons will debate and vote on May’s Brexit motion on WednesdayA political bust-up is certain to follow.
If she doesn’t find a way to remove the threat of a no-deal departure next month, May is likely to suffer a spate of resignations. Cabinet ministers including Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and Business Secretary David Gauke have signaled they will quit rather than be part of a government that takes Britain out of the EU with no deal.
If she does back a delay, May’s pro-Brexit colleagues will accuse her of betrayal and could even support a vote of no confidence in the government — potentially triggering a general election.
May returned on Monday night from an EU summit in Egypt where one EU leader after another asked her whether she would delay Brexit. EU Council President Donald Tusk said it was the “rational” thing to do.
May would have to ask the EU for an extension, and the bloc would probably say yes. What’s less certain is whether they would agree to a short delay, or force her into a longer one that would be even more politically toxic at home.