LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May urged restive lawmakers Tuesday to hold their nerve and give her more time to rework a divorce agreement with the European Union, heightening concerns that Brexit uncertainty will continue right up to the edge of the U.K.’s departure on March 29.
With Britain’s EU exit just 45 days away, May tried to avert a rebellion when Parliament votes again Thursday on Brexit by promising another series of votes two weeks later.
Some lawmakers want to use Thursday’s votes to impose conditions on May’s Conservative government in an attempt to rule out a cliff-edge “no deal” Brexit that would see Britain crash out of the EU without a framework for smooth future relations.
May sought to buy time, telling lawmakers they would get another chance to alter her course on Feb. 27 if she had not secured changes to the Brexit deal by then.
May signaled she might delay Parliament’s vote on whether to approve the divorce deal even further, potentially holding it after a March 21-22 EU summit — just days before Britain is due to leave the bloc.
She would not rule that out when questioned by opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“We must agree a deal that this House can support and that is what I am working to achieve,” she told the House of Commons.
“The talks are at a crucial stage,” May added. “We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House requires and deliver Brexit on time.”
The opposition was having none of this.
“Our country is facing the biggest crisis in a generation and yet the prime minister continues to recklessly run down the clock,” said Corbyn.
Parliament last month rejected May’s Brexit deal with the EU, in part over a contentious plan to keep a seamless border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.
The measure, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU and removes the need for checks along the border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place. The free flow of people and goods across the frontier has been an important measure upholding Northern Ireland’s peace deal.
But pro-Brexit British lawmakers fear the backstop could trap the U.K. in regulatory lockstep with the EU, unable to strike new trade deals around the world.
May and other Cabinet ministers are holding talks with senior EU officials in an attempt to add a time limit or an exit clause to the backstop. But EU leaders insist the legally binding Brexit withdrawal agreement can’t be changed.
Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Monday that “something has to give” on the British side to secure an orderly Brexit.
May has also held talks with Labour, the U.K.’s main opposition party, which says it could support a Brexit deal if the government promised to seek a close relationship with the EU after Britain leaves. But any such move would cost May the support of a big chunk of her Conservative Party.
The political impasse leaves Britain lurching toward a chaotic no-deal departure that could be costly for businesses and ordinary people in both the U.K. and the EU.
May’s political opponents accuse the government of deliberately wasting time until lawmakers face a last-minute choice between her deal and no deal.
May “is playing for time and playing with people’s jobs, our economic security and the future of our industry,” said Corbyn.
House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, who is in charge of the parliamentary timetable, denied that the government was wasting time. She said May would bring her deal back to Parliament for a vote “as soon as the issue around the backstop has been sorted out.”
“It is a negotiation. It’s not possible to predict the future,” she told the BBC.
Uncertainty about what trade relationship Britain will have with the bloc after Brexit is weighing on the U.K. economy. Figures released Monday showed that Britain’s economy slowed last year to its joint-slowest annual rate since 2009, with business investment declining for four straight quarters.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said Tuesday that U.K. investment had not grown since the 2016 EU membership referendum, “and has dramatically underperformed both history and peers.”
“It is in the interests of everyone, arguably everywhere … that a Brexit solution that works for all is found in the weeks ahead,” he said.
Danica Kirka contributed to this story.