Theresa May has admitted she will not get a Brexit deal in time for MPs to hold a “meaningful vote” this week, amid warnings time is running out for an agreement before Britain leaves the EU.
The Prime Minister, attending an EU-League of Arab States summit, said negotiations with Brussels on the Northern Ireland backstop were still ongoing.
However she 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.
Speaking to reporters on the flight out to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Mrs 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.
A cross-party group of MPs seeking to block a no-deal break immediately confirmed they would be tabling an amendment giving the House the power to demand a delay to Brexit if an agreement is not in place by mid-March.
Labour MP Yvette Cooper, who drew up the plan with Conservative former minister Sir Oliver Letwin, said it would 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.
Mrs 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 – Mrs 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.”
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.”
Mrs 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 between Mrs May and Mr Tusk ‘focused on practicalities’, according to an EU source.
The source stated that Mr Tusk “recalled the need for EU27 to have clarity that a proposal for the way forward can command a majority in the UK, before the issue is tackled by the European Council.”
The 30 minute meeting was conducted without tensions, and the PM updated Mr Tusk on the work and timeline to find a way forward on Brexit, particularly regarding plans in relation to the meaningful vote, the source said.
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,” Mrs 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.”