Closed Theresa May seeks ‘short’ Brexit extension – as it happened

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EU leaders harden position on Brexit delay ahead of summit on Thursday as PM battles for control


Welcome to the FT’s live coverage of all today’s Brexit goings on in London, Brussels and beyond.


What’s happened so far today?

- Theresa May has said she will seek a “short” Brexit extension beyond March 29
- Many MPs had expected her to keep a longer extension as an option, following a vote to that effect last week in parliament
- But Eurosceptics in the UK cabinet threatened to quit if the prime minister sought a long delay
- Jean-Claude Juncker has said the EU cannot approve an extension at a summit this week. He wants clarity on what the UK wants to do with more time


Hinds: Time for UK to ‘get our act together’

The UK education secretary Damian Hinds told the BBC this morning that a long delay wouldn’t change the fundamental choice facing British MPs.

“I don’t see how a long delay gives certainty. Actually we’ve had a long time already.”

“There’s already been two and a half plus years to do this, I think people are a bit tired of waiting for parliament to get our act together and get the deal passed.”

“We’re coming up very soon to the 29th of March and a short while after that there’s the European elections which is also another important watershed point, so you can’t keep kicking this ball further and further and further. You need to pick it up and run with it.”


Leadsom: ‘Absolutely essential’ avoids EU elections

Meanwhile Andrea Leadsom, the Eurosceptic leader of the House of Commons, warned on LBC radio that the UK must not find itself forced into taking part in EU elections in May.

“It is absolutely essential we are out of the EU before the EU elections. It would be extraordinary for the people who voted to leave the EU to find us fielding candidates for these next elections.”

“Parliament is really trying to overturn the will of the people and that is extremely damaging for our politics. What the Conservative party is trying to do is to deliver on the referendum.”


Duncan Smith: Delay creates ‘wave of problems’

Former Tory leader and vocal Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith has separately warned that any delay to the Brexit deadline next week will spell serious trouble for his party at the upcoming local elections.

“There is real, real resistance and concern in the Conservative party, not just in Parliament but on a much wider spectrum around the country in the run-up to the May elections. This will without question cannon into the May elections and cause real issues and concerns.”

“Any delay creates a bow wave of problems, not just for the government here but for the governing party and, frankly, for all those people who voted to leave thinking … we would leave on March 29.”

“There will be repercussions if we don’t deliver on our Brexit vote and on our manifesto.”


Short delay puts pressure on Labour MPs

Theresa May’s shift towards a shorter extension period could win over the support of a handful of Labour MPs in Leave seats who have previously voted against her deal, reports the FT’s Jim Pickard.

Gareth Snell, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, said he would probably vote for the deal now given the greater likelihood of a no-deal Brexit.

“I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that the only way to stop No Deal may be to vote for her deal,” he said. “I’m not happy about that. I think that was her plan all along.”

Mr Snell said the prime minister should have been working with the Labour leadership to forge an acceptable soft Brexit instead.

And he warned that some Labour politicians changing their minds would not necessarily rescue the prime minister: “There are not enough Labour MPs to get it through,” he said.

But Ruth Smeeth, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, said she had not changed her mind. “I want to vote for a deal, but she has not made any good enough concessions on the deal yet.”


Benn: MPs must show EU ‘we have got a plan’

Hilary Benn, Labour MP and one of the architects of previous attempts to wrestle the Brexit process from Theresa May, said earlier that next Monday will be parliament’s chance to show what it will support. Here are some snippets from his Twitter feed this morning.

So with just 9 days to go the country is leaderless and in crisis. It is now the moment for Parliament to provide leadership.

MPs must now debate the real choices we face about what kind of deal we might be prepared to support: a free trade agreement, a customs union and/or a deal like Norway.

The best way to find out which of these might command a majority is to hold indicative votes on them. This is what the Government should be doing – but isn’t – so we must.

Next Monday will be Parliament’s opportunity to do this. We should take it, not least because it will show the EU that we have got a plan for the extension. And whatever deal Parliament does eventually agree should be put back to the people in a confirmatory referendum.


Pro-Europe ministers unhappy with short extension request

Pro-EU ministers have expressed their dismay at the British prime minister’s decision to only request a short extension of Article 50, reports the FT’s Laura Hughes.

One told the Financial Times: “This will only work if enough people switch to vote for the withdrawal agreement.”

“If not, then we are just creating a new no-deal deadline and there is clearly no Commons majority for that.”

Another said Mrs May was “not left with a lot of wriggle room” after Eurosceptic ministers suggested in Tuesday’s cabinet meeting that they would resign from the government if she requested a long extension.


Is Bercow to blame?


The FT’s Henry Mance delivers this blunt assessment from a minister loyal to Theresa May:

“All we know is it’s a f****** mess. That’s the only universal truth… But what else could she do [than request an extension until June 30]?”

The minister said the government’s strategy for winning the meaningful vote on its Brexit deal remained the same – win over the Democratic Unionist party, and hope that enough Eurosceptic Tories come across with them. If Eurosceptics continued to hold out for a no-deal Brexit, “threaten to chuck them out of the party – I’m not joking.”

But the minister also said that the speaker John Bercow had seriously impaired the government’s chances, by saying the same deal cannot be voted on again, because the DUP will not back the deal if there is a risk that it will not be put to the vote. “The speaker’s ruling is stopping the DUP from coming on board.”


Grim mood among Tory MPs

The mood in the Conservative parliamentary party is not especially bright this morning, reports the FT’s Seb Payne.

After yesterday’s extraordinary cabinet meeting, where Theresa May did not sum up or express any opinion about a Brexit extension, there is growing anger among MPs that the party is drifting and becoming a laughing stock.

The European Research Group of Brexit-supporting MPs is holding its breath – for now – on what the prospect of a short delay means. Some of its members believe that moving back Brexit Day until the end of June could be another opportunity for parliament to take control of proceedings.

One senior ERG member predicted the short Brexit delay would mean “another three months of dodging Cooper/Boles amendments to hijack the business of Parliament” – a reference to a plan by MPs Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles to allow the Commons to vote on softer forms of Brexit. “We’ve managed to succeed so far,” they added. Another ERG MP said “to say this is interesting is a mild understatement.”

Another senior ERG member said that the ire is, once again, focused on the prime minister’s position. It has been said many times before, but Tory MPs are fuming at the indecision with just a week until the UK is set to leave the EU. The 1922 committee of Conservative MPs will meet at 5pm today and Mrs May is due to speak to them.

One MP predicts it will be a tempestuous meeting: “To quote the song, ‘I Predict A Riot’ at the ’22 tonight. MPs across the party, not just the ERG, say this cannot go on and there are all sorts of things we can do to depose her. The mood is filthy this morning.”

“MPs are either angry or depressed depending on who you speak to. But personally I’m glad this is coming to a head. Let’s make a bloody decision,” said another.


SO24 to take control

You may not have heard of “Standing Order 24” before but it could play a major role in events in the coming hours, writes the FT’s Jim Pickard.

Alison McGovern, a Labour MP, has issued an SO24, which is the jargon for an emergency debate triggered by an MP.

It is an attempt to challenge Theresa May’s plan to seek only a short extension to Brexit of less than three months.

Many Europhile MPs believe that May’s announcement – expected in a letter later today – plays into the hands of Hard Brexiteers because it creates a new “No-Deal cliff edge” at the end of June.

What will happen today is that the Speaker, John Bercow, will listen to the application, probably after PMQs (so about 12.50pm). He will then decide whether to accept it and hold a debate either today or tomorrow.

Usually an SO24 has to be a “neutral motion”. One person who has seen the McGovern draft says it says something along the lines of “this House notes the UK government intends to seek an extension to Article 50”.

However, the motion could be an amendment by MPs seeking a longer extension to Article 50 and thus to Brexit itself.

Earlier today Labour suggested it would support the McGovern SO24 if Mrs May did not come to the Commons to announce her plan to seek only a short extension.

“The PM should make a statement. If she doesn’t we will support all measures to force a debate in parliament on this matter,” a spokesman said.

But even now there is some suspicion on the opposition benches that this may not come to a vote because – in the words of one person involved in the talks – “it’s not clear there is unanimous Labour frontbench support.”


Labour whips confirm request for an emergency debate today

The application will come from Labour MP Keir Starmer, and will ask MPs to consider “the matter of the length and purpose of the extension of the Article 50 process requested by the government”. This would be separate to that suggested by Alison McGovern, however.

https://twitter.com/labourwhips/status/1108332406589796352


Starmer set to be called over McGovern?

The Speaker is unlikely to accept the Alison McGovern application, writes the FT’s Jim Pickard. But he has heard that the Speaker is more likely to accept the separate application from Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, asking for an emergency SO24 debate.

The Speaker will make his decision much later in the afternoon, after three urgent questions.


The prime minister addresses MPs

Theresa May has started Prime Minister’s Questions, where she will be asked by MPs about the state of play for Brexit.


Emoticon UK PM writes to Tusk seeking extension to 30 June

Theresa May has requested an extension of Article 50 by three months to the end of June. Mrs May says EU elections would not be in anyone’s interests. The idea that three years after leaving the EU the UK should elect MEPs is unacceptable, she says.

She has in effect ruled out an extension beyond that date.


Corbyn: UK faces ‘full scale national crisis’

Jeremy Corbyn says he wants no deal taken off the table, reminds the prime minister that the house voted to take no deal off the table last week, and calls on the prime minister to take no deal off the table herself.

“This is a national crisis,” he says.

He asks Mrs May to meet him later today.

Mr Corbyn will also go to Brussels tomorrow to meet EU leaders.


EmoticonBrussels will strongly oppose June 30 Brexit extension

Brussels will strongly oppose a British request to move Brexit to June 30, reports the FT’s Alex Barker, arguing it would threaten the integrity of the EU, according to a leaked paper.

The European Commission sees EU leaders facing a “binary” choice between granting a short delay to Brexit until May 23 or a long extension to the end of the year and beyond, according to the internal note.

The paper, circulated to the college of Commissioners on Tuesday and seen by the Financial Times, lays out the potential legal and political constraints on changes to Britain’s March 29 exit date.

It forcefully argues against the possibility of extending UK membership beyond May 23 unless Britain participates in the European Parliament elections that month.

“Any other option (as for example an extension until 30 June 2019) would entail serious legal and political risks for the European Union and would import some of the current uncertainties in the UK into the EU27,” the note states.


PM letter: timetable uncertain at this stage

Theresa May’s letter to Donald Tusk has been published, asking EU leaders to approve supplementary documents agreed in Strasbourg. With these, along with additional further domestic proposals to protect the UK’s internal market, she will put forward a new motion to parliament. The timetable is uncertain, however, and she seeks an extension to June 30.

http://blogs.ft.co…19/03/0134_001.pdf


PM future at stake?

As Mrs May set out her extension request, she said: “As prime minister I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than June 30.”

Many pundits are interpreting that answer as a hint that she would quit as PM if parliament forced a longer extension than June 30.


May to clash with Speaker over deal

Theresa May seems to be on a collision course with the Speaker of the House of Commons, writes the FT’s Henry Mance.

Her letter to Donald Tusk suggests that she will put her deal to another vote in parliament if the EU council formally endorses the legal assurances that she agreed with Jean-Claude Juncker earlier this month in Strasbourg. That, she suggests, would satisfy Speaker John Bercow’s insistence that the deal can only be voted on again if it has substantively changed.

But the Speaker said on Monday that the legal reassurances were what made the second meaningful vote substantively different from the first meaningful vote. So would he really allow a third vote on the basis that the same reassurances are now approved by the EU council?


Anger from opposition MPs at May’s short extension request

A number of opposition MPs have expressed their anger, disbelief and frustration at the UK government’s latest move. Here’s a sample:

Yvette Cooper:

Truly shocking. This is a Prime Minister in the worst state of denial, refusing to listen to anyone, just still doing the same thing again and again, no plan B, heading stubbornly towards the cliff edge.

David Lammy:

Shameless and outrageously irresponsible. @theresa_may, by ruling out a long extension you are enabling no deal. You are welcoming the destruction of jobs and undermining national security. You will irrevocably harm this country in the name of self-interest and fear of the ERG.

Lisa Nandy:

This “strategy” from No.10 is the surest way to end up with no deal at the end of June. They aren’t listening, aren’t serious and haven’t got a clue what they’re doing

Wes Streeting:

Theresa May is calling for a short extension to save herself and to manage Conservative Party divisions. As usual the national interest is an afterthought. Outrageous contempt for Parliament. Time to give the Commons the chance to vote on a range of options to break the deadlock.


Could parliament take control?

In response to a question by Oliver Letwin, a Conservative MP who backs her deal but wants a softer Brexit, Mrs May said that if MPs did not back her deal, “the house will have to decide how to proceed”.

That seems to open the door to the Commons taking control of the process, according to the FT’s Henry Mance.


Juncker told May this morning the EU terms

A spokeswoman for Jean-Claude Juncker said that Mrs May informed him this morning about the letter in a phone call.

But Mr Juncker formally warned Mrs May against including a date for the extension that is after the European Parliament elections. He repeated to her his advice from a letter of March 11 that the UK’s withdrawal had to be complete before May 23, otherwise there would be institutional difficulties and legal uncertainty.

European Parliament elections have to be held involving the UK if the extension date is after May 23.


PMQs offers clear window into May’s dilemma

Theresa May has come under fire from all sides today in the House of Commons.

- Second referendum supporters are demanding she put her deal to the public.

- Soft Brexit supporters want indicative votes to find an alternative way forward.

- Hardcore Brexiters have expressed anger that the UK won’t leave at the end of next week as promised.

- Meanwhile the EU has already signalled it will oppose an extension to June 30, as requested.

Today’s developmemts appear to have pleased almost nobody.


Pound hit by latest Brexit twist


The fall in Britain’s currency accelerated on Wednesday afternoon after a leaked paper indicated Brussels would strongly oppose an extension in the Brexit date to the end of June, report the FT’s Michael Hunter and Adam Samson.

Sterling is down 0.7 per cent on the US dollar at $1.3168, and off 0.8 per cent against the common currency at €1.159.

News of the leaked paper came just as UK prime minister Theresa May sent a note to the EU asking for an extension until June 30. The European Commission said EU leaders would face a choice between a short delay, to May 23, or a more extensive one at least the end of 2019 to offer Britain time to reconsider its plans.

The lingering uncertainty about the length of the delay to Brexit also drew investors into the relative safety of UK government debt, pushing down the yield on benchmark 10-year gilts to its lowest since mid-March, down by almost 3 basis points to 1.159 per cent.

The 20-year gilt yield touched its lowest level since June 2017, down almost 4 basis points to 1.573 per cent, as investors bought into longer-term debt.


1pm update: EU and UK head for Brexit showdown

- Theresa May has formally requested an extension to the Brexit process until June 30

- The UK prime minister ruled out a longer delay, hinting that she would resign if it was forced upon her

- The EU indicated almost immediately that it is strongly opposed to any extension beyond May 23

- Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, said a decision is unlikely to come until next week

- In a tempestuous PMQs, a number of MPs called on May to hold indicative votes, but were rebuffed

- The pound has fallen around 0.7 per cent today against the US dollar


Could Brussels force a long extension?

Laura Hughes, one of our Westminster team, brings us this interesting little snippet:

“This is the move that ensures she stays in No 10″, said one government official. “It will not work as a strategy for getting the deal through.”

“This is not what parliament voted for last week. So many of the rebel hold outs are now holding out because they want No Deal, but it’s not available. It never really has been.”

“Tactic is clearly to wait for the EU to force a long delay on us.”

However, the noises from Brussels are highly sceptical that this is even possible, let alone desirable.


Is the clock ticking down on May’s premiership?

Will Theresa May still be prime minister by the summer? For the first time, she has outlined the circumstances in which she would tender her resignation, writes the FT’s Seb Payne.

At PMQs today Mrs May repeatedly said “as prime minister, I could not consider a delay beyond 30th June” – whether that is imposed on her by the House of Commons or EU negotiators. That could point to a general election, but it is more likely to mean a change of leader.

A red line has been drawn: either Brexit happens sometime before the end of June or someone else will have to clear up this mess. This is a significant moment: Mrs May’s position was technically secure until December, when party rules would allow backbench MPs to challenge her again for the leadership.

But Mrs May has concluded that she does not have the will, or political capital, to survive kicking Brexit into the long grass.

Conservative MPs this morning are increasingly agitated about Mrs May’s lack of leadership and inability to shape events. Increasingly it has been opposing wings of the cabinet who are shaping the main Brexit decisions. But on the issue of whether to push for a short or long extension, it seems the prime minister has made her own call.

This will be a disappointment for some in government. Number 10 has long been focused on holding the government together until May 28, known as “Gordon Brown Day” where Mrs May’s time in office will overtake the last Labour prime minister. If she survives till then, her standing in the history books will rise ever so slightly.

Ever since she entered Downing Street in the summer of 2016, Mrs May has said it is the government’s duty to deliver on the will of the referendum and ensure the UK leaves the EU. That mission may be unchanged, but she may no longer be the person to see it through.


May’s approach gets a thumbs down from German MP

Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, sounds deeply unimpressed by Theresa May’s latest efforts to secure her Brexit deal.

May just asked EU for short Brexit extension. But without backing by cabinet and parliament her request is meaningless. @JunckerEU is right: EU leaders should defer decision until UK presents an approved plan. EU cannot become accomplice of May’s internal tactical manoeuvres.


Despair from UK manufacturers

Make UK, the British manufacturing industry group, has released a statement.

‘We are moving from farce to tragedy.’

‘The only thing likely to worsen the current picture is leaving the EU without a deal, which would be catastrophic for the manufacturing sector which is so dependent on frictionless trade, common standards and regulation.’

‘As a result, we conditionally support the Prime Minister’s decision to seek a short extension to Article 50. We do so on the express condition that the Government and Parliament use this time to relentlessly pursue a clear outcome that protects our trading relationship and provides certainty as quickly as possible. Delay for delays sake will simply make an appalling situation worse.’


Labour: no extended Brexit delay needed

The Labour spokesman has made it clear that the party will not push for a longer extension to Article 50, writes the FT’s Jim Pickard.

Speaking to journalists after PMQs, the spokesman said Jeremy Corbyn believed that cross-party talks could coalesce either around a customs union or a “Common Market 2.0” (basically a Norway-type arrangement involving single market membership) in the next few months.

Neither would require changes to the withdrawal agreement, he pointed out, only to the more forward-looking political declaration.


May’s Article 50 extension letter – annotated

The FT’s Henry Mance has dissected the letter sent by Theresa May to Donald Tusk:


So… what happens next?

The FT’s George Parker has been trying to read the tea leaves over in Westminster. Here’s his latest update on what MIGHT happen next…

First, May travels to Brussels on Thursday to discuss her application for a short extension. The view in Number 10, as in Brussels, is that this may not be confirmed until a second European Council towards the end of next week.

Next Monday MPs will discuss an amendable government motion on what happens next: this will be the moment when MPs can grab the parliamentary agenda and set out a process for indicative votes to test Commons support for other forms of Brexit. Those votes could happen next week.

On Tuesday or Wednesday Mrs May then intends to hold the third “meaningful vote” on her deal in the hope that MPs will finally agree her plan – a long shot admittedly – before the emergency European Council meeting.

The hope in Downing Street is that Eurosceptic MPs will back her deal rather than risk the possibility of a Labour-backed soft Brexit plan emerging at Westminster, possibly facilitated by the EU giving more time for a cross-party group of MPs to develop an alternative strategy.

And somewhere in the middle of this the government would have to table the statutory instruments in the House of Commons and House of Lords to change Brexit day so that Britain doesn’t crash out on March 29. Assuming the EU has agreed an extension.


Paris to block extension without plan

France on Wednesday took a hard line on UK prime minister Theresa May’s request for a short extension to the Brexit process, writes the FT’s Victor Mallet, saying the other 27 members of the EU would not agree to an extension unless the UK parliament agreed the existing deal or there was a guarantee that it would do so.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, foreign minister, told members of the French National Assembly on Wednesday that France would oppose a Brexit delay without a credible plan from the UK.

A situation in which Mrs May would not be able to present to the European Council sufficient guarantees on the credibility of the strategy would then lead to the rejection of the extension demand and the choice of a no-deal exit


Emoticon Emergency Brexit debate

The request by Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, for an emergency SO24 debate into the length and purpose of the extension of the Article 50 process requested by the government has been accepted by the Speaker.

It will last up to three hours, according to the Labour whips office

https://twitter.com/labourwhips/status/1108384854356492288


Opposition leaders invited to see May

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reports that opposition leaders have been invited to see Theresa May later today.

They had been invited earlier to meet David Liddington, Mrs May’s deputy, but those meetings have been cancelled, she says.


A bit more from Paris

We had some comments from French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian earlier (2.59pm). Now we have a bit more. This comes from the FT’s Victor Mallet.

Mr Le Drian said France would be open to a “technical” extension of a few weeks to allow British institutions to finalise formal ratification of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement.

But without a vote in the House of Commons to approve the deal, “the central scenario is a no-deal exit – we are ready for it”, he said.

France would pay particular attention to the interests of the EU in agreeing any extension, Mr Le Drian said, which would need three things:

“First, that the extension has the aim of finalising the ratification of the withdrawal agreement; second, that the UK is very clear that the withdrawal agreement fixed in November last year will not be renegotiated, and that its integrity will be preserved; and third, that the UK does not take part in the forthcoming European elections.”


Tusk talks

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has arrived for his press conference


Tusk: Short extension ‘possible’ but ‘conditional’

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has just given a very short statement in Brussels, responding to Theresa May’s letter from earlier today asking for an extension of the Article 50 process.

He said a short extension was “possible” but “conditional” on a positive vote on the Withdrawal Agreement in the UK parliament.

He said the UK’s request for a new exit date of June 30 “has its merits” but presents “a series of questions”. EU leaders will debate the issue tomorrow.

He ends by saying that hope seems “frail”, but that: “We cannot seeking until the very last moment a positive solution.”


May to seek opposition support

Theresa May is scheduled to meet Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders at Westminster in Downing St at 6pm, writes the FT’s George Parker.

The talks will focus on the delay to Brexit, according to his sources, as she seeks to build support. Mrs May has also been invited to address Tory MPs on Wednesday evening but her attendance has not been confirmed.

Allies of Mrs May have downplayed speculation that the prime minister could address the nation from the steps of Downing St on Wednesday evening.


More from the Tusk press conference

Donald Tusk has warned that any extension to Brexit will depend on the UK approving its draft withdrawal deal with the EU, writes the FT’s Jim Brunsden, saying that the bloc’s leaders will need to discuss how much of a delay is legally possible to Britain’s March 29 departure date.

The president of the European Council said in a statement that talks with other EU leaders had convinced him that “a short extension” to the Brexit process should be possible, with the proviso that it would only be confirmed once Britain’s parliament has approved the exit deal.

He said that EU chiefs would need to discuss the legal issues that could arise from any extension beyond the date of EU parliament elections on May 23, but that Theresa May’s plan of a June 30 exit date “has merits.”

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, he said that he did not plan to organise another meeting of EU leaders next week, but that if this week’s summit in Brussels approves an extension in principle, then it could be confirmed in writing at a later date.

In the light of the consultations that I have conducted over the past days, I believe that a short extension will be possible, but it will 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. 30 June has its merits…[and] creates a series of questions of a legal and political nature

Even if the hope for final success may seem frail, even illusory, and although Brexit fatigue is increasingly visible and justified, we cannot give up seeking – until the very last moment – a positive solution


Ministers told new vote early next week

Senior cabinet ministers have been in Downing Street to see the prime minister this afternoon, according to the FT’s Laura Hughes and Seb Payne, including home secretary Sajid Javid and work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd.

Several officials with knowledge of the meeting say that the ministers were told about another vote. One official close to cabinet said ministers “definitely left with the impression that we will have a vote, potentially as early as next week, that will essentially be deal or no deal”.

If this is Downing Street’s plan, it chimes with the comments made by Donald Tusk that a short extension will only be granted by the EU if the deal has passed the House of Commons.

It also may be in No.10’s interests to ramp up the rhetoric on no-deal over the next week; forcing MPs to make a tough choice between supporting Mrs May’s deal on the third (and possibly final) attempt or face an abrupt no-deal Brexit next Friday.


May to address the public tonight, says Varadkar

There have been rumours floating around for much of the day that Theresa May would make a statement to the nation this evening following her request for an extension to the Article 50 process. No.10 has not yet confirmed any such plans.

However, Leo Varadkar, Mrs May’s Irish counterpart, appears to have confirmed it during a press conference in Dublin instead, according to local media.


Conservative’s 1922 committee gathers without May

The Tory party’s 1922 committee of backbenchers is meeting shortly – but won’t be hearing from the prime minister.

Some MPs had been calling for Theresa May to attend so that backbenchers could quiz her on today’s events – specifically the request for a short Article 50 extension. She appears to have declined the opportunity.

Tory party chair Brandon Lewis will be her representative instead.


Tusk’s silence leaves door ajar to longer extension

EU officials said that Donald Tusk’s comments were a response to the situation Theresa May herself has created with her decision to seek a short extension and to rule out a longer postponement that would provide time for the country to reconsider its Brexit strategy.

Mr Tusk tweeted last week that he was open to exploring such a longer delay, if Britain requested it, reports the FT’s Jim Brunsden in Brussels.

The officials said the comments made clear the conditions that would be attached to a short delay, while leaving the door open to other options should Mrs May fail again to get her exit deal through parliament.

Tellingly, Mr Tusk said that he was ready to organise another summit of EU leaders if needed.


Financial regulators prepare for no-deal

Meanwhile no-deal preparation continues. The UK financial watchdogs have signed a deal with their counterparts in the EU to share information and co-operate should the UK crash out of the bloc with no deal in place, writes the FT’s Caroline Binham.

The Bank of England, which supervises the largest lenders in the UK, and the Financial Conduct Authority said on Wednesday they had signed a memorandum of understanding with the European Banking Authority, which is the supervisor of supervisors across the EU.

The agreement with the EBA will then serve as a template for how regulators can interact with national regulators across the 27 member states of the EU should there be a cliff-edge Brexit.


Applause from the 1922

The 1922 committee meeting of Tory MPs has begun, with Theresa May ducking out for party chairman Brandon Lewis to speak in her place.

The typical waves of applause are emanating from the walls, writes the FT’s Seb Payne. But this is muted by the Tories usual standards of banging against the doors and walls.


Heated Brexit debate continues in parliament

In the commons, the emergency debate over Brexit and an extension continues, with Tory MP Dominic Grieve winning plaudits for an impassioned speech that casts doubt on whether May’s deal would be passed next week at the third time of asking.

“I have never felt more ashamed to be part of the Conservative Party,” he said.

Independent MP Angela Smith described his speech as “devastating in its honesty and its clarity”.


Varadkar: Time to cut May ‘some slack’


Leo Varadkar argued Europe should give Theresa May “some slack” following her request to delay Brexit, but said he had no settled view on the ideal length of deferral in advance of a high stakes EU summit on Thursday, reports the FT’s Arthur Beesley in Dublin.

“Most of us would prefer to see this resolved sooner rather than later but we don’t have a definitive view yet on the date and I think it will be important for EU heads of state and government tomorrow to hear from prime minister May … what her plan is.”

Mr Varadkar said he expected the British leader to address her country on Wednesday night, adding that he wanted to avoid a situation where “frustration” in Europe at the turmoil in London led inadvertently to a no-deal Brexit next week.

“The situation is unstable. There’s a lot of political instability in London at the moment as people can see — and there is a real risk, that we wish to avoid, of no-deal happening by accident, despite people’s best intentions.”

“So I think it’s time now to cut them some slack, to cut the British government some slack when it comes to their request for an extension and when it comes to their request that the Strasbourg agreement … be ratified formally by the European Council over the next two days so we’re willing to support both those requests.”

“The view I’m taking — and the view the Irish government is taking – is that we want to avoid no-deal on March 29th. We believe that is what everyone in Europe and certainly the UK wants as well. In that context we’re willing to cut the British government some slack.”


Is the deal any more likely to pass next time around?

Much talk today has been about what might happen if Theresa May’s deal is passed when it comes back for another vote next week, probably Monday.

But there are no signs yet that the deal’s prospects have improved over the past 24 hours, at least not among Tory MPs.

Conservative Grant Shapps told the BBC that “nothing has changed” unless something “actually changes within the agreement itself”. He says if it is brought back, and if the Speaker accepts it, then “it is going to fail again”.

He added that the Commons is at an “impasse” and it is unclear as to what will happen next. He raised concerns that there may not be a majority in parliament for any next steps to be approved. He says in that event, the only next step may be a general election.

Mark Francois, member of the Eurospectic ERG group in parliament, reminds anyone who might have forgotten that he is quite happy to see a no deal exit next week.

“We are D minus 9, if the EU don’t give us an extension and her deal is voted down again, then we are free, that is what I am fighting for,” he told Sky News.

Instead the focus may shift to winning over Labour MPs, many of whom would like to vote for a deal in order to make good on the referendum result.

One path might run through an amendment being prepared by Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy – two Labour MPs who have been sympathetic towards passing a Brexit deal. The amendment effectively gives MPs a greater say – including a final vote – on any deal regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

That could, in theory, pave the way for a slightly softer Brexit without any changes to the existing deal, and therefore could appeal to some Labour MPs.


Opposition parties raise idea of cancelling Brexit

A joint statement has been put out by a group of opposition parties – not including the Labour party – on Brexit.

The SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru have said they will push parliament towards a second referendum on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. However, the statement goes on:

“If the Commons cannot agree, as a last resort we would be prepared to take steps to secure a parliamentary vote on the revocation of Article 50.”

They warn that a choice between Mrs May’s deal and no deal would “make Brexit a choice between disaster and catastrophe”.

The prospect of unilateral revocation remains rather fanciful at the moment. But it is now being discussed.


EU talking tough, but do they mean it?

Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think tank, has been parsing Donald Tusk’s comments and letter on Brexit today. Here are some edited highlights from Twitter:

“Tusk has not ruled out a different political declaration, for a softer Brexit, or even the prospect of a longer extension if UK asks for it. IMHO @YvetteCooperMP and co will force May to accept indicative votes on options for the future conceivably before the meaningful vote, or more likely afterwards.”

“These may well lead to a softer Brexit. EU happy to change political declaration to reflect that – this can be done easily before end-June or even end-May, if EU goes for very short extension.”

“If Parliament votes down May’s deal, not clear if European Council will be as tough as Tusk/French imply. EU doesn’t want no deal. A lot of member-states would seek a way of avoiding no deal, however fed up they are with UK.”


May statement expected at 8:15pm

It had been rumoured for much of the day, and the Irish premier seemed to confirm it when he addressed reporters this afternoon (see 4:52pm).

But the BBC says it is now official that Theresa May will make some sort of statement in just over an hour. We’re not sure whether this will be inside or outside No.10, or perhaps even elsewhere.

Sky News describes it as an “address to the nation”. Let’s see.


CBI: business watching in ‘absolute horror’

Britain needs a whole new plan if politicians are to avoid a chaotic departure from the EU, according to the director-general of the UK’s largest business association, the CBI.

Carolyn Fairbairn said businesses were looking at the parliamentary infighting around Brexit with “a sense of absolute horror”.

The CBI has until now given its support — if somewhat grudgingly — to Mrs May’s troubled withdrawal agreement, which has twice been voted down in parliament by substantial majorities.

Ms Fairbairn suggested that a further attempt to push the deal through the Commons unaltered could not be certain of success. “What we need now is a plan for how we get to the deal in an extension,” she said, adding that its absence was “deeply concerning”.

Read the full story here.


UK to trigger no deal plans on Monday

The UK government is set to fully implement its planning for a no-deal Brexit — code-named Operation Yellowhammer — next Monday because no delay to to the scheduled date of March 29 will have been agreed by that point, Whitehall officials have confirmed.

In a letter to cabinet ministers, Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, has signalled that the UK needs to step up its civil contingency operations to their full level next week because a cliff-edge Brexit could happen just days later.

“Operation Yellowhammer command and control structures will be enacted fully on 25 March unless a new exit date has been agreed between the UK and the EU,” Mr Barclay wrote to ministers, in the letter, leaked to the Daily Telegraph.

Read the full story here.


Corbyn ditches talks with May over Umunna invite

Opposition leaders were invited to meet Theresa May this evening.

However, Jeremy Corbyn reportedly walked out after discovering that Chuka Umunna, who recently quit the Labour party to setup the Independent Group of MPs in parliament, was also present.

From ITV’s Paul Brand:

Understand Jeremy Corbyn refused to join meeting with opposition leaders because Chuka Umunna was there. “He’s not a proper party leader”. Corbyn walked out.

Speaking to Sky News, Mr Umunna confirmed the reports, and described Mr Corbyn’s actions as “really extraordinary behaviour”.


Waiting for May…


May statement nudged back to 8:30pm

For the second time today, Theresa May has asked for a delay – this time to her Brexit statement from Downing St. It has been moved from 8:15pm to 8.30pm, which was four minutes ago.


May calls once more for MPs to back her deal

May has delivered a brief statement. She says the delay to Article 50 is a “great personal regret”.

She says the public has “had enough”, and that people are tired of MPs talking about “nothing else but Brexit”.

Other lines:

“It is now time for MPs to decide.”

“So far parliament has does everything possible to avoid making a choice.”

“I passionately hope MPs will find a way to back the deal.”

“I am not prepared to delay any Brexit any further than the 30th of June.”


What happened today: a summary

- Theresa May formally requested a short delay to Brexit until June 30

- She also ruled out any further delay so long as she is prime minister

- Donald Tusk said a short delay was “possible” but “conditional” on MPs backing her deal

- EU leaders will discuss extension options during a summit, which begins tomorrow

- The government is expected to bring its deal back to parliament next week

- So far Eurosceptics have shown little sign of changing heart

- May ended the day with a brief statement, calling for MPs to back her deal


That’s it from us tonight. Thanks for joining us.