Theresa May will be forced to write to EU leaders on Wednesday and beg them to delay Brexit, with her cabinet deadlocked over the best way out of what Downing Street now concedes is a “crisis”.
The government had maintained until the last possible moment that Brexit could go ahead as planned on 29 March or after a brief “technical extension”.
But after the Speaker, John Bercow, ruled the prime minister could not put her deal to parliament unchanged for a third “meaningful vote,” her spokesman conceded it was now too late to leave with a deal.
He said May would write to the European council president, Donald Tusk, to ask for an extension to article 50, before EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday. He declined to say how long a delay she would request, or for what purpose, simply insisting: “You’re going to have to wait for that letter to be published.”
Asked whether May agreed with the solicitor general, Robert Buckland, who described the situation after Bercow’s ruling on Monday as a “constitutional crisis”, her spokesman said: “If you were to look back at the speech the prime minister gave, just before meaningful vote two, she said that if MPs did not support meaningful vote two we would be in a crisis. Events yesterday tell you that that situation has come to pass.”
Ministers discussed Brexit for about 90 minutes at what several sources said was a testy cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Insiders said opinion was more or less evenly divided, between those who favoured requesting a short, three-month extension, leaving in place the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in the summer, and those who want to see a much longer delay. Several sources said ministers emerged from cabinet unclear about what May’s personal position was on the best way forward.
Brexit-backing ministers, including leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, protested strongly about the idea of a long extension. They intend to lobby May again in the next 24 hours in a bid to quash the idea.
Leadsom even warned that she now believed her colleagues were trying to thwart Brexit: “This used to be a cabinet that would deliver Brexit, but now from what I’m hearing it doesn’t seem like it is,” she said.
May also met backbench colleagues to sound them out about the next steps, including the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who is widely regarded as the potential frontrunner in a leadership contest should the prime minister step aside.
One cabinet source said: “The current position is untenable; if they just accept a long extension the party will split.”
Some members of the backbench European Research Group (ERG) at their regular meeting in Westminster on Tuesday nightopenly called for the prime minister to step aside.
However, several leave-supporting MPs said they had been reassured that May’s intention was still to push ahead with Brexit as rapidly as possible and that she would only accept a longer extension if forced into it by Brussels.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, hinted on Tuesday that Brussels would demand a clear answer to the question of how the government intended to proceed as the quid pro quo for granting an extension.
“The key questions will be: does an extension increase the chances of the ratification of the withdrawal agreement? Will the UK request an extension because it wants a bit more time to rework the political declaration?” Barnier said. “If not, what would be the purpose and outcome of an extension? And how can we ensure that at the end of a possible extension we are not back at the same situation as we are today?”
Any extension would have to be approved by a vote in both houses of parliament next week because the 29 March date is written into the EU Withdrawal Act.
Ministers have promised that parliament will have the opportunity to debate how it could decide on an alternative approach next Monday, but May’s spokesman insisted her priority was to continue to try to win over MPs to her deal.
“The prime minister has set out that she believes that the deal she has secured from the EU is a good one, and that it is the best deal available, and she continues to work on finding a way for parliament to pass that deal, so that we can get on with leaving the EU as quickly as possible,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.
Negotiations with the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) have continued since the weekend in the hope that if its leaders signal support for her approach, key Brexiters including Jacob Rees-Mogg could swing their weight behind it.
One strand of the talks has involved Philip Hammond discussing post-Brexit options for taxing goods crossing the Irish border. “The chancellor is a crucial figure in all this because customs and excise comes under his remit,” said a source with knowledge of the negotiations.
“The problem that is being discussed is how to tax goods – where they might be taxed, away from the border or otherwise – and how that might be done”.
The DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds have also met May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, and the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill.
Discussions have centred on how Northern Irish politicians will maintain some political oversight of the backstop, the agreement to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland in the event that the UK leaves the EU without securing an all-encompassing deal.