By Elizabeth Piper
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May put off a vote in parliament on her Brexit deal until as late as March 12 – just 17 days before Britain is due to leave the EU – setting up a showdown this week with lawmakers who accuse her of running out the clock.
As the Brexit crisis goes down to the wire, May said a so-called “meaningful vote” would not take place this week as expected. Parliament will still hold a series of Brexit votes on Wednesday, but May’s deal itself will not be on the table.
On her way to an EU-Middle East summit, May said she is close to bringing home changes to her agreement that would satisfy objections to it, but needed time for meetings with European leaders which meant it would not be ready this week.
“We won’t bring a meaningful vote to parliament this week but we will ensure that that happens by the 12th of March,” May told reporters on board her plane. “It is still within our grasp to leave the European Union with a deal on the 29th of March and that is what we are working to do.”
Opponents accuse her of deliberately running out the clock, so as to force parliament to choose between a deal it has already rejected or leaving the EU with no deal at all, which businesses say would destroy their supply chains.
Both May’s Conservatives and the main opposition Labour Party are formally committed to exiting the EU in line with a 2016 referendum vote, but both parties are internally divided over how or even whether to do so.
Before May set off for Egypt, three members of her cabinet publicly split with government policy and said they would side with rebels and opposition parties to stop a no-deal Brexit.
Yvette Cooper, an opposition Labour lawmaker who has proposed a bill that would block a no-deal Brexit, said May’s “last minute announcement that she won’t put a deal to parliament this week, and is leaving it until just two weeks before Brexit day, is utterly shambolic and irresponsible.”
“She cannot just keep drifting and dithering like this or there is a real risk our whole country tumbles off a cliff edge into a chaotic no deal that no one is ready for and that would hit food prices, medicine supplies, manufacturing and security.”
Some lawmakers will seek to grab control of Brexit in Wednesday’s series of votes, though such attempts have previously been defeated as May sought more time to get a deal.
Senior Labour figures said that the main opposition party was moving closer to supporting another Brexit referendum and could do so as soon as early as this week.
Nine Labour lawmakers and three Conservatives quit their parties last week in the biggest shakeup of its kind in British politics for decades, raising the prospect of further defections from both parties.
The British parliament voted 432-202 against May’s deal in January, a defeat by the biggest margin in modern British history. May says she can still win support for it if EU leaders ease rules intended to ensure no hard land border ever appears between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland.
European Council President Donald Tusk told May that the EU needs clarity that whatever the bloc might offer would command a majority in the British parliament, before a summit of EU leaders scheduled for March 21-22, an EU official said.
EU officials have considered many theoretical scenarios, including an extension of Brexit for up to two years, though it is unclear if such a delay would resolve the current impasse.
The EU has ruled out reopening the withdrawal agreement. Both sides are looking at a possible legal addendum to reassure lawmakers who worry that the Irish border plans could keep Britain trapped in the EU’s orbit for years to come.
But Europeans sound increasingly frustrated at Britain’s political chaos: “You need two to dance tango, and I know how to dance,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said when asked if he was running out of things to give on Brexit. “I have a certain Brexit fatigue.”
(Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan in London, Aidan Lewis and Amina Ismail in Sharm El-Sheikh and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Peter Graff)