Plot to delay Brexit by years after rebels' betrayal of May
A plot to delay Brexit by up to two years was under way last night after four British Cabinet ministers betrayed Theresa May by helping to kill no deal for good.
Brexit will be delayed until June 30 even if MPs can be persuaded to back a deal next week. If a deal is rejected again a "much longer" delay will be inevitable, Mrs May warned.
It is now understood that ministers have already begun discussing the possibility of a two-year delay.
A total of 18 members of the Government either voted for or abstained from a motion to block no deal for good, despite them standing on a manifesto that promised Britain would be prepared to walk away from the EU without a deal.
On a historic night in the Commons, Mrs May lost control of her party - and the Brexit process - as MPs Amber Rudd, David Gauke, Greg Clark and David Mundell defied a three-line whip by abstaining from a vote that would have kept no deal on the table if the British government had won.
The government lost the vote by 321 votes to 278, forcing Mrs May to give MPs a vote on delaying Brexit tonight.
But Brussels will tell Theresa May to ask for a lengthy extension to the Brexit negotiations at an EU summit next week.
"Somebody must tell her the truth," said one senior EU source. "Asking for a short extension is simply pre-programming no-deal Brexit for the summer."
After MPs voted to take no deal off the table last night, Mrs May said she would hold another vote on her discredited deal on the eve of the EU summit where leaders would decide on a British request to extend the deadline beyond March 29. If her deal is passed, she would ask for a shorter extension until June 30. If it fails, the request would be for a longer period.
Officials are privately resigned to the fact that the British Parliament is too divided to deliver a stable majority in favour of one course of action in the short-term and expects a British request to extend the deadline.
"The Withdrawal Agreement is dead," the senior EU source said. "We don't see how you get over a defeat of 149 in six to eight weeks. The problem is too fundamental to overcome by just tinkering with changes to the Irish border backstop."
The EU is desperate to avoid the blame for no deal so is likely to accept a demand for a longer extension at the March 21 summit, sources in Brussels said. But an extension of nine months to a year would enrage Brexiteers who will fear it means Brexit will be postponed indefinitely.
Brussels' position is that it will grant an extension to allow time for a general election or a second referendum, and it would consider a short extension to give more time to prepare for no deal but is likely to reject a British request for a brief extension simply to try to get the Brexit deal ratified.
The source warned that Mrs May had to tell Brussels her plans the moment MPs asked for an extension to give the EU-27 time to prepare their response for next week.
"But she has always been slow and she has always been stubborn," the source said. "The history books will be cruel," the source added before the prime minister revealed she was going to give leaders less than just 24 hours' notice of her intentions.
May 24 is the preferred short deadline for the commission as it avoids any legal complications caused by the European Parliament elections soon after.