After three senior cabinet ministers threatened to vote against the government to block a no-deal exit, the UK prime minister tried to keep a grip on negotiations by offering the House of Commons a new deadline to vote on a revised deal.
But the gambit was condemned by the CBI business group as “running down the clock”, while Europhile MPs argued that it was unlikely to save the prime minister from a humiliating defeat on Wednesday, when parliament will debate her approach to talks.
The scepticism was echoed by European leaders gathering at an EU-Arab League summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, said he was “not playing chicken” with Britain, while Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, noted it might “be good to postpone Brexit” if Mrs May failed to win a majority by early March.
Dismissing the incredulity over her timeline in Brussels and Westminster, Mrs May insisted it was still “within our grasp to leave the EU with a deal on 29 March”, implying the necessary follow-up legislation could be passed in a matter of days.
The prime minister is engaged in high-stakes negotiations with EU leaders and her cabinet, after her original Brexit deal was defeated in a so-called meaningful vote in the House of Commons last month by a record margin of 230 votes.
Her move on Sunday aims to buy time for negotiations in Brussels, keep pressure on her MPs by staving off efforts to delay Brexit day beyond 29 March, and leave some room for fallback options should the next vote fail.