The government yesterday agreed that it was “imperative” to ratify Britain’s exit from the European Union before the summer break, setting out the clearest deadline so far for Brexit and the prime minister’s possible departure.
Nearly three years after the UK voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU, there is still no agreement among politicians about when, how or even if the divorce will take place.
Britain had been due to leave the EU on March 29, but Prime Minister Theresa May was unable to get her divorce deal approved by parliament.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said EU leaders did not want an extension beyond the new deadline of October 31, when the legal default is to leave with or without a deal.
To try to break the impasse in parliament, May turned to the opposition Labour Party, led by veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, but after weeks of talks they have so far failed to reach an agreement.
May has been urged by senior members of her own party to abandon the talks.
However, senior ministers agreed at a Cabinet meeting yesterday to press ahead with the talks with Labour, May’s spokesman said.
“Ministers involved in the negotiations set out details of the compromises which the government was prepared to accept in order to consider an agreement which would allow the UK to leave the EU with a deal as soon as possible,” the spokesman said.
“However, it was agreed that it is imperative to bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in time for it to receive royal assent by the summer parliamentary recess.”
Parliament usually breaks for the summer in the second half of July, although the exact date has not yet been set out.
It must approve the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in order to ratify Britain’s exit from the bloc.
May has said she will step down once the first phase of Brexit is complete.
Thirteen of May’s former Cabinet colleagues as well as Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative lawmakers, wrote to May yesterday to ask her not to agree to Labour’s demand for a post-Brexit customs union with the EU.
“You would have lost the loyal middle of the Conservative Party, split our party and with likely nothing to show for it,” the letter said. “We urge you to think again.”
“No leader can bind his or her successor so the deal would likely be at best temporary, at worst illusory,” said the letter, whose signatories included Gavin Williamson, who was sacked as defence minister this month, and former foreign minister Boris Johnson.
The Conservative Party has slumped to fifth place ahead of the May 23 European Parliament election, while Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is in the lead, a YouGov opinion poll for The Times newspaper showed on Monday.
The Conservatives and the Labour Party were also given a drubbing in local council elections this month.
The collapse in support is piling pressure on May to set a date to step down.
May, who has repeatedly ruled out signing up to a permanent customs union, has said if the talks with Labour fail parliament could be asked to vote on a range of Brexit options.
The talks are also coming under fire from Labour, which says May has not altered her position and that a future Conservative leader might renege on any promises.
“We haven’t seen the significant shift yet that we require to be able to support a deal,” said Labour’s finance chief John McDonnell. “We are not near what we want.”
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