British Prime Minister Theresa May scrambled on Thursday for a way to secure a new delay to Brexit in the face of parliamentary deadlock by setting out plans for a watered-down vote on her EU divorce deal to be held on Friday.
Lawmakers will vote on May's withdrawal agreement at a special sitting but not on the framework for future relations with the EU she negotiated at the same time, a manoeuvre which sparked confusion among lawmakers.
Britain agreed with the EU last week to delay Brexit from the originally planned March 29 until April 12, with a further delay until May 22 on offer if May could get her divorce package ratified by lawmakers this week after two failed attempts.
"The European Union will only agree to an extension until May 22 if the withdrawal agreement is approved this week," House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom told lawmakers. "Tomorrow's motion gives parliament the opportunity to secure that extension."
May's Brexit package, comprising the legally binding withdrawal agreement and a more general political declaration on the future relationship with the EU, has been overwhelmingly rejected by lawmakers on two previous occasions.
It remains uncertain how, when or even whether the United Kingdom, the world's fifth-biggest economy, will leave the EU. The risks that it could crash out as early as April 12 without a transition deal to soften the shock to its economy, or be forced into a long delay to the departure date to hold a general election, have increased as other options have faded.
May's struggles to pass her deal have thrown the process into chaos, resulting in Brexit being put off and even a pledge from the premier to quit if that is what it takes to win over eurosceptic opponents in her Conservative party to the plan.
Although it cannot clinch approval of May's deal in legal terms, Friday's vote now dares Conservative eurosceptics to vote against the government on the very day that Britain was due to leave the bloc, a goal they have cherished for decades.
Parliament's speaker said he would allow the vote to go ahead as it would be on the withdrawal deal only and so did not break rules against bringing the same package back more than once in the same session of parliament.
Confusion At May's New Gambit
But angry and confused lawmakers from the opposition Labour Party demanded to know whether the government's motion was legal. Lawmaker Stephen Doughty said: "This just looks to me like trickery of the highest order."
On Wednesday, May offered to resign if her Brexit package was passed, securing support from some high-profile critics in her party. But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government, said it still opposed the deal, denying her votes she desperately needs to pass it.
"Things change by the hour here but I’m not expecting any last minute rabbits out of the hat," DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds told the BBC on Thursday.
May's deal means Britain would leave the EU single market and customs union as well as EU political bodies. But it requires some EU rules to apply unless ways can be found in the future to ensure no border posts need to be rebuilt between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
Many Conservative rebels and the DUP object to this "Irish backstop", saying it risks binding Britain to the EU for years.
A bid on Wednesday by lawmakers to seize control of the Brexit process in the face of government disarray with a series of "indicative votes" on alternatives to May's deal yielded no majority for any of them.
However, the option calling for a referendum on any departure deal, and another suggesting a UK-wide customs union with the EU, won more votes than May's deal did two weeks ago. Lawmakers will have another go at the more popular options on Monday.
Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said that May's vow to resign if her deal was passed meant Britain was headed to a "blindfold Brexit", which would be exacerbated by a vote which did not encompass the political declaration on future relations.
"We would be leaving the EU, but with absolutely no idea where we are heading," Starmer said. "That cannot be acceptable and Labour will not vote for it."
With May floundering in her effort to get her Brexit package approved, EU officials and diplomats said on Friday Britain was more likely than ever to tumble chaotically out of the EU.
They said the bloc would push ahead with contingency preparations next week and was gearing up for an emergency Brexit summit the week after, probably on April 10.