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14th Apr 2024

May to seek Brexit extension amid UK 'constitutional crisis'

British prime minister Theresa May's plans to get the Brexit withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons were thrown into chaos after the speaker of the parliament told May she cannot submit the deal for a third meaningful vote unless it is substantially changed.

Speaker John Bercow told the House on Monday afternoon (18 March) that the government could not bring forward proposals for a vote in parliament that were the same as had already been defeated twice, first in January and then last week.

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  • MPs rejected the Brexit divorce deal twice before - last week by 149 votes and in January by 230 votes. (Photo: European Parliament)

Bercow's decision took May's government by surprise. May is now preparing to ask for an extension to the Brexit process beyond the 29 March deadline from the EU leaders, who will have to approve it unanimously.

Without an extension, the UK is set to leave the EU in 10 days.

Hardcore Brexiteers welcomed the Speaker's move as it appeared to increase the likelihood of Britain leaving the bloc without a deal, which they think ties Britain too closely to the EU.

Bercow cited a parliamentary rule dating back to 1604 that says that substantially similar proposals cannot be voted on in the House of Commons more than once during the same session of parliament - to preserve the credibility of the House.

"What the government cannot legitimately do is to resubmit to the House the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that of last week which was rejected by 149 votes," he told MPs.

Bercow's decision leaves May scrambling for options. The government's solicitor general, Robert Buckland, said the speaker's move amounted to a "constitutional crisis".

Long extension?

The EU has ruled out renegotiating the withdrawal deal which was agreed by UK and EU negotiators last November.

The UK can ask for a delay to the Brexit date, and May needs to ask fellow EU leaders formally to grant that extension. EU-27 leaders gathering in Brussels on Thursday (21 March) are set to discuss Brexit, but a formal request from London has yet to arrive.

A senior EU official said that technically the UK could submit such request for an extension as late as "one hour before midnight" on 29 March, and it can be approved after the EU summit by the council of member states through a written procedure.

However, the EU official added that the EU "would prefer to have clarity as soon as possible", and May is expected to ask for a delay at the EU summit.

May's government in the meantime is holding talks with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), as the small Northern Irish party's support is vital if she would try to get the Brexit deal through parliament again next week in some revised form.

May had warned MPs that unless they approve the Brexit divorce deal, Britain's departure from the EU could face a long delay - which upset some Conservative MPs fearing a softer Brexit.

Last week the Brexit deal was defeated by 149 votes, and in January, it was rejected by 230 votes in parliament.

EU reluctance

The issue of extension divides EU member states, with the EU parliament elections in May complicating allowing the UK to remain in the EU, unless they participate in the ballot.

The EU commission's advice presented to member states argued that the UK needs to leave the bloc by 2 July, when the new European parliament gathers in Strasbourg, because having a member state with no parliamentary representation could through EU legislation into legal limbo.

German chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff on Monday told the Bild newspaper the issue of extending the delay for Britain's exit is not a given, and that he could not rule out that Italy or another country could prevent it.

Helge Braun was quoted by Reuters as saying that Britain's participation in the European election would be "odd for the Britons themselves".

May, however, is likely to ask for a long extension to the Brexit process.

EU officials and diplomats have been warning the UK for months to give strong and clear arguments for an extension, as member states are reluctant to grant a delay if it means more of the same political bickering in London during the extension.

To break the deadlock, the British parliament would need to make a decision on a potential second referendum, an election or a different Brexit, with perhaps the UK remaining in the customs union and the single market.

Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was expected to meet individual MPs arguing for some form of customs union, or 'Norway-style' Brexit later on Tuesday, as well as with the leaders of the Scottish National Party and the Welsh Plaid Cymru, and Liberal Democrats, with an aim to see if there was some form on cross-party consensus.

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