LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May faced mounting pressure Tuesday from her own government to delay Brexit after the main opposition Labour Party raised the prospect of a second referendum.
May has steadfastly argued that she must keep the prospect of the U.K. crashing out the bloc without an agreement on March 29 on the table in order to wrest essential concessions from Brussels.
But her talks with European leaders on Sunday and Monday in Egypt achieved no breakthrough and the 46-year relationship is approaching a messy breakup that could wreak havoc on global markets and create border chaos.
That possibility is prompting a growing chorus of ministers to call on May to propose a short Brexit delay.
“We implore the government to take that step this week,” three junior ministers wrote in Tuesday’s Daily Mail newspaper.
“We must act immediately to ensure that we are not swept over the precipice on March 29,” they wrote.
Culture and media minister Margot James told BBC radio she signed the letter because “we felt honor-bound to actually do something to help prevent such catastrophe.”
It was co-written by business minister Richard Harrington and energy minister Claire Perry.
Three more senior cabinet members published a similar letter over the weekend.
The Daily Mail said as many as 15 ministers were “said to be ready to resign.”
May huddled with her top team members before heading to Parliament to map out her strategy for the final 31 days of a process that began when Brexit won in a June 2016 vote.
Her effective number two, David Lidington, said May and her Cabinet would hold a “free debate” about her next steps in Britain’s biggest political crisis in a generation.
But he refused to confirm multiple newspaper reports saying she would offer a short Brexit date extension if her deal fails to win lawmakers’ support by a self-imposed March 12 deadline.
“I am not going to predict what the PM will say later today,” Lidington said.
The rebel ministers are all backing a proposed parliamentary amendment that would force May to set a new Brexit date if she fails to get better terms on the disputed issue of the Irish border.
Lawmakers will get a chance to vote on the emergency measure on Wednesday.
Any delay would likely infuriate powerful euroskeptics in both May’s government and party who fear Brexit either being watered down or reversed.
And those still hoping to avert the split were boosted by the Labour Party’s conditional decision to back a second Brexit referendum on Monday.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had infuriated many party faithful by hedging his bets and simply offering to negotiate a deal that would keep Britain more closely bound to other 27 EU states.
But he bowed to the pressure from the more EU-friendly wing of his party by offering a way to halt “a damaging Tory Brexit.”
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said the party on Wednesday would put its own Brexit deal proposal up for a Parliament vote.
“If it doesn’t go through, we the Labour Party will either put down ourselves or support an amendment in favour of a public vote,” Starmer told BBC radio.
“A public vote ought to be between the option on the one hand of a credible leave option and on the other hand remain.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5