Facing the certainty of a huge rebellion and a wave of resignations, the Prime Minister pledged that if Parliament rejects her Brexit deal a second time, there would then be votes on whether to exit the EU without a deal or go ahead with a “short, limited” extension of the Article 50 negotiation process.
The U-turn has prevented a huge defeat this evening at the hands of pro-EU MPs, who fear the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, but risks driving another wedge between the Prime Minister and Brexiteers, including Mrs May’s DUP allies.
Pro-Remain MPs had their fears confirmed yesterday as the government published an impact analysis of a no-deal exit showing British businesses and citizens were unprepared for a chaotic scenario that could be just over a month away.
The document, published following pressure from ex-Tory MP Anna Soubry, who resigned from the party last week, showed the economy would be up to 9 per cent smaller after 15 years and suggested businesses exporting to the EU faced £13 billion of additional costs.
With pressure mounting over the looming risk of a damaging no-deal exit, Mrs May told MPs they would have a chance to put that scenario off, but insisted the only way of removing it altogether was by backing her deal.
“I know members across the House are genuinely worried that time is running out, that if the government doesn’t come back with a further meaningful vote or it loses that vote, Parliament won’t have time to make its voice heard on the next steps,” she said.
“I know too that members across the House are deeply concerned by the effect of the current uncertainty on businesses.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the PM of “kicking the can down the road”. He confirmed he would table an amendment to today’s motion seeking MPs support for his party’s own customs union deal.
The Prime Minister said the Brexit deal would be voted on in the Commons by 12 March and that if it was rejected again by MPs, there would be a vote the following day on whether to leave the EU without a deal.
If the Commons rejects a no-deal scenario, there would then be a vote on 14 March on whether to ask the EU for a “short, limited extension”.
Downing Street declined to say how Conservative MPs would be whipped in the votes or what length of extension would be offered if it came to a motion to extend Article 50.
Mrs May said: “Let me be clear, I do not want to see Article 50 extended.
“Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on 29 March.
“An extension beyond the end of June would mean the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections.
“What kind of message would that send to the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago now?
“And the House should be clear that a short extension – not beyond the end of June – would almost certainly have to be a one-off.
“If we had not taken part in the European Parliament elections, it would be extremely difficult to extend again, so it would create a much sharper cliff edge in a few months’ time.”
The Prime Minister added: “An extension cannot take no deal off the table. The only way to do that is to revoke Article 50, which I shall not do, or agree a deal.”
Mrs May had faced a wave of resignations by ministers determined to vote for an amendment from Labour MP Yvette Cooper, seeking to tie the government’s hands on an extension to Article 50.
The Prime Minister said her proposals met the timetable set out in Ms Cooper’s amendment. She called on MPs to reject it in votes today, arguing that “tying the government’s hands by seeking to commandeer the order paper would have far-reaching implications for the way in which the United Kingdom is governed, and the balance of powers and responsibilities in our democratic institutions”.
In a bid to prevent a rebellion by Tory Brexiteers in two weeks’ time, Mrs May said work would continue on ways to avoid the controversial Irish border backstop from coming into force.
“The UK and EU have agreed to consider a joint work stream to develop alternative arrangements to ensure the absence of a hard border in Northern Ireland,” she told MPs. “This work will be done in parallel with the future relationship negotiations and is without prejudice to them.
“Our aim is to ensure that, even if the full future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, the backstop is not needed because we have a set of alternative arrangements ready to go.”
The Prime Minister’s critics failed to welcome her U-turn. Mr Corbyn said that “until the Prime Minister is clear what alternative she would put forward in that circumstance, then she is continuing to run down the clock”.
He also confirmed that even if the Prime Minister’s deal was approved by MPs, Labour would seek to make it subject to a “confirmatory referendum”.
Veteran Europhile Tory Sir Kenneth Clarke said Mrs May was simply “pushing back the cliff edge”.
The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford told the Prime Minister to prepare for a longer extension, saying his party was selecting candidates for the European elections in May.
Mr Blackford said Mrs May “could not be trusted” not to dodge another meaningful vote. He urged her to hold votes ruling out no deal now.
A cross-party group of MPs will push for a second EU referendum today. An amendment by the Independent Group, supported by the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, instructs the Prime Minister to table a motion for debate before 8 March, setting out the steps necessary for preparing a public vote on whether to leave the EU or remain a member.