Commons tells May to ask EU for an extension of Article 50

Pro and anti-Brexit protesters in Westminster, London, Thursday March 14, 2019
Pro and anti-Brexit protesters in Westminster, London, Thursday March 14, 2019

MPs have voted to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled date of March 29 amid dramatic scenes in the House of Commons.

The vote came after Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement was rejected for the second time on Tuesday and MPs voted the following day to rule out a no-deal Brexit.

A motion in Mrs May’s name, authorising the prime minister to request an extension to the two-year Article 50 negotiation process, was passed by 412 votes to 202 – a majority of 210.

But Downing Street sources accepted that significant numbers of Conservative MPs had opposed the PM’s proposal, saying this was a “natural consequence” of Mrs May’s decision to offer a free vote on an issue where many have strongly-held opinions.

Only a refusal by the leaders of the 27 remaining EU states to grant the UK an extension at a Brussels summit next week could now preserve the totemic date of March 29 as Brexit Day.

Mrs May has made clear that she hopes to bring her agreement back to the Commons by March 20 in the hope of securing the support of MPs who rejected it by 230 votes in January and 149 earlier this week. Aides declined to name a date for the third “meaningful vote”.

If she succeeds, she will go to Brussels next Thursday to request a short delay to a date no later than June 30, to give herself time to pass legislative changes necessary for a smooth and orderly Brexit.

But if her deal is rejected for a third time, she believes any extension would have to be far longer and would involve the UK taking part in European Parliament elections in May.

Cabinet Office minister David Lidington told MPs that in this case, the government would stage two weeks of debate following the March 21-22 summit for the Commons to try to establish a majority around a different plan.

Ministers met for a reportedly testy political meeting of Cabinet ahead of the votes, at which Mrs May was said to have berated four senior colleagues who defied the Tory whip to abstain in the no-deal vote.

A Downing Street source characterised the exchange as “productive, open and honest”, adding that Cabinet “collectively agreed to redouble their resolve in working to deliver on the result of the referendum to leave the EU by securing support for a deal”.

Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “The prime minister absolutely wanted and strived for the UK to be leaving the EU on March 29. Everything she had done since she entered office was intended to deliver that.

“She didn’t want there to be an extension and brought forward the Withdrawal Agreement twice. Parliament chose to reject that deal and we now have to confront the difficult position that decisions taken by Parliament have left us in.

“What we now intend to do if at all possible is to secure a deal which allows us to ask only for a short technical extension which would allow us to have left the EU by June 30.”

European Council president Donald Tusk has indicated that the EU may be ready to offer a lengthy extension to negotiations if the UK wants to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.

But any extension must be approved unanimously by the EU27, and Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl said there could be “some problem” in obtaining this if it took Brexit beyond the date of elections.

A spokesman for the European Commission said it “takes note of tonight’s votes”, adding that president Jean-Claude Juncker was “in constant contact with all leaders”.

Earlier, MPs decisively rejected an attempt by the Independent Group to secure a second referendum on Brexit by 334 votes to 85.

Mr Bercow sparked fury among Brexiteers by selecting TIG MP Sarah Wollaston’s referendum proposal for debate, while blocking another amendment which sought to rule out a second public vote.

And by the far narrower margin of 314-312, they voted down a cross-party bid for Parliament to seize control of the Brexit process.

The cross-party amendment, tabled by MPs including Labour’s Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper and Tory Sir Oliver Letwin, would have forced a set of “indicative votes” to determine the preferred Brexit outcome of the House of Commons.

A Labour amendment demanding an extension to Article 50 withdrawal negotiations to provide time to “find a majority for a different approach” was also defeated.The votes came as US President Donald Trump said Brexit was ripping Britain apart and warned that another referendum would be “unfair”.