Mrs May confirmed she intends to bring her deal back to the Commons for a third and final time before next Friday’s scheduled Brexit date, with the EU’s ultimatum setting up the vote as a deal or no-deal showdown.
In a statement at Downing Street last night, Mrs May said delaying Brexit was a source of “deep personal regret”, but laid the blame on Parliament, saying: “You, the public, have had enough.”
And staking her own future on the outcome, Mrs May earlier told MPs: “As Prime Minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June.”
Asked if that meant she would quit rather than accept a longer extension to Article 50, a Downing Street spokesman said: “You should infer from those words the strength of the Prime Minister’s resolve.”
With some EU leaders believed to be against any extension and Brussels opposed to granting a delay without a clear purpose, Mrs May’s letter has also raised renewed fears about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit if MPs reject the deal again.
The Prime Minister sent a formal request to EU Council president Donald Tusk ahead of a summit in Brussels today.
Despite warnings from European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker that an extension until 30 June would keep the UK in the EU beyond European elections in May, breaching EU law, Mr Tusk said the request had “merit”.
“I believe that a short extension would be possible,” he told a press conference in Brussels. “But it would be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons. The question remains open as to the duration of such an extension.”
Mr Tusk indicated that it should be possible for leaders of the remaining EU27 to approve his plan at a summit in the Belgian capital starting today.
He said that if MPs approve the Brexit deal, there was no need for another “extraordinary” summit next week.
But campaigners for a second EU referendum said Mr Tusk’s failure to rule out another summit or a longer delay to Brexit meant there could still be time for a vote to reverse Brexit.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mrs May told MPs: “The idea that three years after voting to leave the EU the people of this country should be asked to elect a new set of MEPs is, I believe, unacceptable.
“It would be a failure to deliver on the referendum decision this House said it would deliver.”
Mr Juncker told German radio that a short extension would give the UK Parliament time to agree to the existing withdrawal agreement text, but insisted there would be “no more negotiations”.
“If that doesn’t happen, and if Great Britain does not leave at the end of March, then we are, I am sorry to say, in the hands of God,” Mr Juncker said. “And I think even God sometimes reaches a limit to his patience.”
Only a week ago, Mrs May’s deputy David Lidington warned that a short delay would be “downright reckless”.
And a motion tabled by the government last week appeared to keep a longer extension of nine months to a year on the table.
But Mrs May told the Commons: “The Government intends to bring forward proposals for a third meaningful vote. If that vote is passed, the extension will give the House time to consider the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. If not, the House will have to decide how to proceed.
“But as Prime Minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June.”
She said Parliament had already “indulged itself on Europe for too long” and spent “endless hours contemplating its navel on Europe”.
If a delay is approved by EU leaders, Mrs May will rush legislation through both Houses of Parliament next week to remove the date 29 March from Brexit laws.
Under EU rules, participation in the European Parliament elections must be confirmed by 11 April, creating a hard deadline beyond which a longer extension would become impossible.
SNP MP Pete Wishart told the Prime Minister she was “weak, weak, weak” for bowing to pressure from Brexiteers in her Cabinet and party by only asking for a short extension to Article 50.
And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Mrs May of “running down the clock” on Brexit.
He told the Commons: “This Government has led the country and themselves into crisis, chaos and division.
“If the Prime Minister cannot get changes to her deal, will she give the people a chance to reject the deal and change the government?”
Tory Brexiteer Peter Bone warned Mrs May she would be “betraying” the public if she continued to seek to delay Brexit.
In her letter to Mr Tusk, Mrs May said Commons Speaker John Bercow ruling on Monday that he would not allow the same motion to be brought again during this session of Parliament unless it was substantially changed made it “impossible” to hold a third meaningful vote ahead of today’s summit.
But she indicated she believed it was possible to satisfy the Speaker’s requirements by ensuring the European Council formally approves legal assurances on the Irish border backstop agreed last week with Mr Juncker.