LONDON/BRUSSELS – More than 2 million people have signed an online petition urging the government to cancel Brexit, with support rocketing in the wake of Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement Wednesday.
Whatever she hoped to achieve from her address to the nation, in which she blamed members of Parliament for the impasse in the Brexit process and told those who voted to break with the EU she was on their side, it is unlikely she expected a slew of celebrities to urge their social media followers to oppose her plan.
Parliament’s petitions website repeatedly crashed as the number of signatures shot up — fueled by endorsements from singer Annie Lennox, actor Hugh Grant, science broadcaster Brian Cox and comedian David Mitchell.
“The rate of signing is the highest the site has ever had to deal with,” the House of Commons Petitions Committee said on Twitter. “Between 80,000 and 100,000 people have been simultaneously viewing the petition,” it said, “nearly 2,000 signatures are being completed every minute.”
The tally passed 1 million shortly before 3 p.m. London time Thursday after the link to the petition went viral on social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter. It passed 2 million just after 10:35 p.m. while EU leaders were locked in talks with May at a summit in Brussels, negotiating a delay to the divorce date.
“The government repeatedly claims exiting the EU is ‘the will of the people,’ ” the text of the petition says. “We need to put a stop to this claim by proving the strength of public support now, for remaining in the EU.”
Any petition exceeding 100,000 signatures is eligible for debate by Parliament. It is then up to a special Petitions Committee comprised of rank-and-file lawmakers to decide whether one should be held.
“I’ve signed. And it looks like every sane person in the country is signing too,” Grant wrote on Twitter. “National emergency. Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.”
Underlying data showed the most signatories coming from areas that supported remain in the 2016 referendum, including Edinburgh, London, Bristol and Cambridge. But there were also thousands of supporters in Leave-supporting areas such as northeast England, the Midlands and Wales.
Figures also showed signatories in countries around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, suggesting not all may be U.K. voters.
May’s office made clear that she has no intention of revoking Article 50 and keeping Britain in the EU.
“We have said probably 12,000 times in this room — and she has probably said thousands of times herself — that is something she is not prepared to do,” May’s spokeswoman, Alison Donnelly, told reporters at a briefing in Parliament.
European Union leaders agreed Thursday to delay Brexit until May 22 if British lawmakers approve the withdrawal deal brokered with the bloc.
If the House of Commons fails to approve the withdrawal agreement that May reached with Brussels, the EU leaders will offer a much shorter delay until April 12 for Britain to decide whether to leave without a deal.
May has requested a delay until June 30.
Britain had been due to leave the 28-member bloc on March 29, but the House of Commons has twice overwhelmingly rejected the divorce deal over worries that it could trap Britain into a permanent customs union with the European Union.
Parliament voted last week against Britain leaving without a deal amid fears that doing so will create severe economic disruption.
European Council President Donald Tusk said in a news conference the EU had “unanimously” agreed on its response to Britain’s request for a delay, giving an extension until May 22, the day before European Parliament elections start, if the divorce deal is approved by British lawmakers next week.
Tusk said he met with May several times Thursday “to make sure that the U.K. accepts the extension scenarios, and I’m pleased to confirm that we have reached an agreement on this.”
May told reporters, “I’m still working on ensuring that Parliament can agree a deal so that we can leave in an orderly way.”