British Prime Minister Theresa May urged restive politicians to hold their nerve and give her more time to rework a Brexit divorce agreement with the European Union.
With Britain’s departure from the bloc just 45 days away, Mrs May tried to avert a rebellion on Thursday when parliament votes again on Brexit by promising another series of votes two weeks later.
That date, however, is just a month before the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29.
Some politicians want to use Thursday’s votes to impose conditions on Mrs May’s Conservative government in an attempt to rule out a cliff-edge “no deal” Brexit that would see Britain crash out of the EU without a framework for smooth future relations.
Mrs May sought to buy time, telling politicians they would get another chance to alter her course on February 27 if she had not secured changes to the Brexit deal by then.
“We must agree a deal that this House can support and that is what I am working to achieve,” she told the House of Commons in an update on Brexit negotiations. “The talks are at a crucial stage,” Mrs May added. “We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House requires and deliver Brexit on time.”
But the opposition was having none of this.
“Our country is facing the biggest crisis in a generation, and yet the prime minister continues to recklessly run down the clock,” said Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Parliament last month rejected Mrs May’s Brexit deal with the EU, in part over a contentious plan to keep a seamless border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.
The measure, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU and removes the need for checks along the border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.
Pro-Brexit British politicians fear it could trap the UK in regulatory lock-step with the EU, unable to strike new trade deals around the world.
Mrs May and other Cabinet ministers are holding talks with senior EU officials in an attempt to add a time limit or an exit clause to the backstop. But EU leaders insist the legally binding withdrawal agreement can’t be changed.
Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Monday that “something has to give” on the British side to secure an orderly Brexit.
Mrs May has also held talks with Labour, the UK’s main opposition party, which says it could support a Brexit deal if the government committed to seeking a close relationship with the EU after Britain leaves. But any such move would cost Mrs May the support of a big chunk of her Conservative Party.
The political impasse leaves Britain lurching toward a chaotic no-deal departure that could be costly for businesses and ordinary people in both the UK and the EU.
Mrs May’s political opponents accuse the government of deliberately wasting time until politicians face a last-minute choice between her deal and no deal.
Mr Corbyn said Mrs May “is playing for time and playing with people’s jobs, our economic security and the future of our industry.”
House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, who is in charge of the parliamentary timetable, denied the government was wasting time.
She said Mrs May would bring her deal back to parliament for a vote “as soon as the issue around the backstop has been sorted out.”
“It is a negotiation. It’s not possible to predict the future,” she told the BBC.
Uncertainty about what trade relationship Britain will have with the bloc after Brexit is weighing on the UK economy.
Figures released on Monday showed Britain’s economy slowed last year to its joint-slowest annual rate since 2009, with business investment declining for four straight quarters.