Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday pledged to step down if MPs back her EU divorce deal, in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock in Britain’s fractured parliament.
Following months of pressure, May told her Conservative MPs that she would quit if they see through the withdrawal agreement she painstakingly negotiated with Brussels.
Her dramatic gambit came just two hours before MPs start a flurry of votes seeking a last-minute alternative Brexit plan to replace her deal.
May said she would not lead the country in negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union once Britain is out of the bloc.
“This has been a testing time for our country and our party. We’re nearly there,” May told the packed closed-door meeting in parliament, according to her Downing Street office.
“I know there is a desire for a new approach — and new leadership — in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations and I won’t stand in the way of that.
“But we need to get the deal through and deliver Brexit. I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party.
“I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty — to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit.”
– MPs vote on alternatives –
Three years of political turmoil that followed Britain’s decision to break its near half-century bond with the EU were meant to have ended on Friday with the formal completion of the divorce.
But no clear end is in sight and lawmakers have twice resoundingly rejected the agreement May concluded with Brussels over 17 months of acrimonious talks.
Parliament has decided to try to resolve the crisis by giving itself the right to choose from a variety of alternatives to May’s plan.
It will vote at 1900 GMT on eight options that range from a second referendum to recalling the EU withdrawal notice or leaving under much closer economic terms.
Time has been set aside on Monday for MPs to try and whittle down the most popular options to a final plan.
But the motions are non-binding and it will be tough for parliament to force the government to back any proposal with which it disagrees.
House of Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, responsible for bringing forward government business, warned that a lot of parliament’s proposals “are just undeliverable”.
She said there was a “real possibility” that May will bring back her deal for a third vote on Thursday or Friday.
But Commons Speaker John Bercow reminded May that he already scuppered her plan to hold a third vote last week because she was effectively bringing back the same rejected text.
“I do expect the government to meet the test of change,” Bercow told the chamber.
– ‘Better than not leaving’ –
EU leaders have given Britain an extended deadline of April 12 to either salvage May’s deal or find a better way.
Failure to do either could result in a no-deal divorce — a scenario that frightens markets and businesses.
If parliament does adopt May’s deal, Britain is headed for the exit door on May 22.
Britain could otherwise seek an even longer extension that puts it in the odd situation of having to take part in European Parliament elections nearly two months after it was supposed to have left.
May will hope none of the alternatives earn majority support and that her own agreement ends up looking like the best option.
She has already won the backing of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who heads the European Research Group of hard Brexiteers in her party that twice voted against the deal.
“I think we’ve got to the point where legally leaving is better than not leaving at all,” he told BBC radio.
European leaders are watching the entire process with concern.
European Council President Donald Tusk urged EU lawmakers on Wednesday to remain open to a long postponement while Britain rethinks its stance.
“We should be open to a long extension if the UK wishes to rethink its Brexit strategy,” he said.