Theresa May will not be asking the EU for a long delay when she formally requests that Brexit is postponed, Downing Street says.
No 10 added that the PM shared the public’s “frustration” at Parliament’s “failure to take a decision”.
BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith said the delay would not be beyond the end of June.
A cabinet minister has told the BBC this would be a “craven surrender to hardliners” in the Conservative Party.
However, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith – a prominent Brexiteer – said 90% of Conservative MPs would vote against a longer delay and ignoring their views would leave the party in “deep trouble”.
Under current law, the UK will leave the EU – with or without a deal – in nine days.
The PM is due to send a letter requesting a delay to Brexit later, ahead of a EU summit on Thursday at which she will discuss the matter with fellow leaders.
The EU, whose 27 other members must all sign up to any extension, said it had yet to receive any communication from the UK and senior official Donald Tusk would himself be writing to Mrs May by the end of Wednesday.
Explaining that Mrs May “won’t be asking for a long extension” when she writes to the EU, Number 10 said: “There is a case for giving Parliament a bit more time to agree a way forward, but the people of this country have been waiting nearly three years now.
“They are fed up with Parliament’s failure to take a decision and the PM shares their frustration.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker suggested the EU might postpone any decision on extending the Brexit process until it had “more clarity” from the UK.
“As long as we don’t know what Britain will say yes to, we can’t come to a resolution,” he told the German radio station Deutschlandfunk.
“We will probably have to meet again next week, because Mrs May has not got agreement for anything either in her cabinet or her Parliament.”
He again ruled out any further negotiation on the current deal, saying the EU had “already moved intensively towards Britain” and “there isn’t any more”.
When her letter to the EU actually emerges, the final wording will be key – will she rule out ever seeking a longer delay?
Will the text be clear that if Parliament fails to meet its second deadline then the PM will argue for leaving without a deal done? Ultimately, remember, the decision on the length and conditions attached is down to the EU, not the UK.
But as things stand, the prime minister seems to be ratcheting up the pressure for the next few weeks in the hope of pushing her deal through a reluctant Parliament, rather than accepting that the dilemma and level of disagreement is so profound, that a longer rethink might be what is required.
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Talks over a delay come after MPs rejected the withdrawal deal Mrs May has negotiated with the EU for a second time last week by 149 votes.
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They also voted in favour of ruling out leaving the EU without a deal, and in favour of extending the Brexit process – although more than 180 Tory MPs opposed the latter.
The prime minister had hoped to have a third attempt at getting MPs to back her deal before this week’s EU summit.
But Speaker John Bercow effectively torpedoed that when he announced a third “meaningful vote” could not happen in the coming days if it was “substantially the same” motion.
Tories at odds over way forward
Speaking after MPs backed an extension last week, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said in the absence of a deal being agreed “seeking a short and, critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless”.
An unnamed cabinet minister told the BBC that if Mrs May was now going to go down this path it would show her to be “weak, weak, weak”.
“This substantially increases the risk of no deal,” they said. “Her most craven surrender to the hardliners yet.
“She knows this is the wrong choice for the country but she’s putting her short term interests first.”
But highlighting the extent of divisions within the party, Mr Duncan Smith said anything other than a “very, very short extension” would be unacceptable to the majority of Tory MPs and create a “bow wave of problems” in the run up to May’s local elections.
He told Radio 4’s Today any delay must be predicated on getting “enough” change to the current deal to get in through Parliament.
“We really do need to see change come back from Brussels and a real opportunity to do it.”
And Commons leader Andrea Leadsom told LBC she doubted any extension would be as long as nine months, saying it was “absolutely essential” the UK left before the next European Parliament elections, due on 23 May.
A short extension makes sense to the EU if the prime minister can ram her Brexit deal through Parliament in time.
They are keen to move on with other pressing EU issues and to start trade talks with the UK. Something they can’t do by EU law as long as it’s still in their club.
But EU diplomats I’m speaking to this morning are sceptical. They see MPs as divided as ever and Brussels won’t be re-opening the withdrawal agreement and the backstop text again.
If the Brexit deal fails to get through Parliament, a short extension could simply mean delaying a no-deal Brexit by a few weeks.
The thinking in Brussels this morning is that the prime minister may well ask for a short extension now – under pressure from her own party – but bets are on in the EU as to whether she might end up asking for a longer one at a later date.
It will be an uncomfortable meeting on Thursday and Mrs May may not get a definitive response to her extension request.
There’s increasing talk amongst EU leaders of having to hold an emergency Brexit summit as late as 28 March, a day before the UK is still officially supposed to leave the EU.
What happens next?
- The PM is writing to the EU to ask for Brexit to be postponed
- Mrs May will travel to an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the delay options
- All 27 EU members have to agree to any extension proposed
- If an extension is agreed, Mrs May will probably try to get her deal – that was previously heavily defeated – through Parliament
- MPs and peers will also get a vote on any delay
- Talks have been continuing with the DUP and Tory Brexiteers who voted against the deal
- The government could seek to hold a third “meaningful vote” on the withdrawal agreement next week
- But the speaker has said he will not let MPs vote again if the question is exactly the same
- The UK leaves the EU on 29 March with or without a deal, unless a delay is agreed
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