Facing threat of delay, British PM renews efforts for Brexit deal change

Prime Minister Theresa May faces a growing threat that she will be forced to delay Brexit, a move that risks a showdown with eurosceptics in her Conservative Party just weeks before Britain is due to leave the European Union.

With Britain’s Brexit crisis going down to the wire, May is struggling to get the kind of changes from the EU she says she needs to get her divorce deal through a divided parliament and smooth the country’s biggest policy shift in more than 40 years.

In Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh for an EU/Arab League summit, she met the bloc’s leaders to try to win support for her efforts to make her deal more attractive to parliament, where frustrated lawmakers are gearing up to try to wrest control of Brexit from the government.

While an official said extending Brexit talks was raised only briefly at a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, there were other indications that the government was looking at options if her deal fails, including a possible delay.

May has so far stuck to her line that she intends to lead Britain out of the EU on March 29.

She has said repeatedly that any delay would simply postpone a decision on how Britain leaves the EU, something she argues parliament needs to address by March 12, when she has promised to bring back a vote on the divorce settlement.

But a UK official said ministers were “considering what to do if parliament makes that decision” (does not pass the deal), when asked about a possible extension.

Tobias Ellwood, a defense minister, also told BBC radio: “If we cannot get this deal across the line, we are facing the prospect of having to extend.”

While sterling rallied on the suggestion of a delay, May has to tread carefully, with eurosceptics poised to leap on anything they see as part of attempts to thwart Brexit.

“I think it would be disastrous if we had a delay,” said Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative pro-Brexit lawmaker. “I think that faith in our politics – what faith is left in it – would evaporate.”

May’s decision to push back a vote on her deal into March has prompted lawmakers to step up attempts to stop a no-deal Brexit, a scenario many businesses say could damage the world’s fifth largest economy.

Several of their plans would involve extending Article 50, which triggered the two-year Brexit negotiating period, delaying Britain’s departure beyond March 29.

The EU has said it will consider an extension to the Brexit process, but only if Britain can offer evidence that such a delay would break the deadlock in parliament, which resoundingly voted down the deal last month in the biggest government defeat in modern British history.

At the EU/Arab League summit, May met Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the first of several meetings on Monday.

“What you’re getting from European leaders … is a genuine shared determination to get this over the line,” a UK government official said.

But May faces increasing frustration in Brussels, which has rebuffed her attempts to reopen the withdrawal agreement so far.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Sunday when asked if he was running out of things to give: “I have a certain Brexit fatigue.”

May’s officials will return there on Tuesday to build on talks on ways to ease the concerns of parliament over the Northern Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border, and possible focus for renewed violence, between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.

Lawmakers in May’s Conservative Party and those in the main opposition Labour Party are stepping up efforts to try to ensure May cannot take Britain out of the EU without a deal at a vote which is due on Wednesday on the government’s next steps.

Yvette Cooper, a Labour lawmaker, has called on parliament to back her bid to seek to force the government to hand power to parliament if no deal has been approved by March 13 and to offer lawmakers the option of requesting an extension.

“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.

But there is another, perhaps more attractive, proposal to the government, from two Conservatives, which would delay Brexit to May 23, the start of the European Parliament elections, if lawmakers have not approved a deal by March 12.

A government official said the proposal could be considered “helpful”.

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