British Prime Minister Theresa May is under growing pressure to seek a delay for Brexit – amid mounting concern that the UK will not be ready to leave the EU on March 29, its scheduled exit date.
Such a move risks bringing a major revolt from Eurosceptic backbenchers in May’s Conservative Party. However other Tories who are against a hard Brexit – including several cabinet ministers – are stepping up their opposition to leaving without an exit deal.
The prime minister has been struggling to get the kind of changes from the EU she says she needs to get a divorce deal though a deeply divided parliament.
On Sunday she said that Parliament would vote on a Brexit deal by March 12 at the latest – just 17 days before the scheduled exit date.
‘Within our grasp’
May told reporters while en route to a summit in Egypt that talks with the European Union were "still ongoing" which ruled out a vote on her deal this week.
"We won’t bring a meaningful vote to parliament this week but we will ensure that that happens by the 12th of March," May said.
"It is still within our grasp to leave the European Union with a deal on the 29th of March and that is what we are working to do," she added.
Some commentators have seized on that wording as evidence that the prime minister is coming to recognise that some delay may be inevitable. There have been warnings that there is not enough time to pass Brexit legislation, even if parliament does approve a deal.
“If we cannot get this deal across the line, we are facing the prospect of having to extend (the process),” Tobias Ellwood, a UK defence minister, told BBC radio.
'Height of irresponsibility'
May is attending the summit between the EU and the Arab League held in Egypt's resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where she is talking to EU leaders on the sidelines to secure concessions on the Brexit deal.
British parliamentarians rejected the Withdrawal Agreement by a historic margin in January, in part because of the backstop agreement. The mechanism plans for Northern Ireland to remain within the bloc's customs union if a better solution is not found at the end of a planned transition period to prevent the creation of a hard border which would threaten peace on the Irish island.
Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesman for Labour, the UK's main opposition party, said that "this decision to further delay the meaningful vote is the height of irresponsibility."
The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said on Sunday that Labour will work with MPs in parliament to prevent a no-deal Brexit, adding that "Theresa May is putting the country at risk by recklessly running down the clock to force MPs to choose between her bad deal and a disastrous no deal".
When asked whether this would be the week Labour comes out in favour of a second referendum, the party's deputy leader Tom Watson said: "It might be... We are getting closer to that point."
May promised lawmakers she would update them on her progress later this week. She is expected to do so on Tuesday which will set the stage for another debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday which should be followed by votes on amendments brought forward by MPs.
Extend Article 50?
Labour's Yvette Cooper is expected to table an amendment calling for Parliament to vote on whether to extend Article 50 — which triggered the divorce proceeding — by March 13 if a deal has yet to be agreed by that date.
Parliament must try to "restore some common sense" to Brexit in a vote later this week, Cooper said on Sunday.
"The prime minister's remarks today make it even more vital that the House of Commons votes for our bill to try to restore some common sense to this process," Cooper said in a statement. "The prime minister isn't acting responsibly in the national interest, but MPs from all sides need to do so."
A similar vote that sought to delay Brexit by at least three months and brought forward by Scotland's National Party was rejected less than two weeks ago.
But May remained under pressure after a motion she had tabled calling on MPs to reiterate their support for her strategy was soundly defeated with the eurosceptic branch of her ruling Conservative party, the European Research Group (ERG) voting against her because of the government's ambiguity over whether it would allow the country to crash out without a deal.
Meanwhile, three pro-EU Conservative MPs have quit May's party to join a newly-formed Independent Group condemning "this government's disastrous handling of Brexit."
Furthermore, three Cabinet ministers indicated on Saturday that they would back delaying Brexit if a deal is not secured quickly.
European Council President Donald Tusk has told May that the EU needs clarity that an offer from the bloc would command a majority in the British parliament before a scheduled summit of EU leaders on March 21-22.
Brussels has ruled out reopening the Withdrawal Agreement but both sides are looking at a possible legal addendum to reassure MPs who are concerned that the Irish backstop may trap the UK in the EU's orbit. Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has ruled out a time limit or unilateral exit clause.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Junchker responded wearily when asked if he was running out of things to give on Brexit.
"You need two to dance tango, and I know how to dance," he replied. "I have a certain Brexit fatigue."