The European Court of Justice ruled on Monday (10 December) that the UK can unilaterally halt the Brexit process as Theresa May moved towards delaying a crunch vote on her EU Withdrawal Agreement in the UK parliament.
The UK Prime Minister is expected to formally move to delay the vote in a statement to MPs – her fourth in successive weeks – at 1530 GMT after ministers warned that she faced a defeat heavy enough to collapse her government.
Adding to the sense of confusion in Westminster, a spokesperson for Theresa May confirmed to reporters moments earlier that the vote on the draft withdrawal agreement signed with Brussels last month would still take place on Tuesday.
The Luxembourg-based court ruled on Monday (10 December) that the UK was “free to revoke unilaterally that notification” after a “democratic process in accordance with national constitutional requirements”.
However, the UK government immediately dismissed the ruling, with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt describing it as “irrelevant” because ministers had no intention of withdrawing Article 50.
“Just imagine how the 52% would feel if any UK government decided to delay leaving the EU on 29 March,” Hunt told reporters in Brussels.
“People would be shocked and very angry.”
A big loss could spark immediate challenges to May from within her Conservative Party and a vote of no confidence by the opposition Labour party.
It would also leave the tortuous Brexit process in a state of flux less than four months before the 29 March departure date.
May is under pressure to negotiate more concessions ahead of a planned summit with 27 fellow EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday and she spoke with EU Council President Donald Tusk and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar over the weekend.
European officials said they might be able to find a way to offer a token concession that May could take back to London.
The two sides might “work on the (accompanying) protocol or clarify a point that is deemed important so that she can take it back to parliament,” an informed European source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
However, there appears little chance that minor changes would satisfy the over 100 Conservative MPs who have publicly disowned Mrs May’s Brexit deal.