In Depth

Five times Theresa May has changed her mind on Brexit

PM rows back on declaration that UK must leave EU on 29 March

Theresa May appears to be backtracking on her insistence that the UK must leave the EU by the end of March, promising MPs today that they would get the chance to reject a no-deal Brexit and possibly delay the departure date from the bloc.

Addressing the Commons, the prime minister set out a new timetable in which MPs will vote on Thursday 14 March on extending Article 50 if the Commons has not passed a deal by then and if MPs have opted to reject a no-deal scenario in a vote the previous day.

The UK “will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome”, she vowed.

May refused to say which way the Government would lean in either vote, saying only that any extension would be short and “almost certainly... a one-off”.

The new timetable follows speculation that as many as 15 of her Remainer ministers were prepared to quit to back an amendment that would give Parliament a vote on whether to suspend the Article 50 withdrawal process if no new deal has been reached with Brussels by Wednesday 13 March.

The PM has “capitulated to pressure from Yvette Cooper, Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin. Her statement delivers almost precisely what their motion and legislation specified,” says ITV’s Robert Peston, in a series of tweets on the climbdown.

However, The Guardian’s Heather Stewart reports that when pressed on whether May was still willing to take Britain out of the EU without a deal, a spokesperson for the PM said “she wouldn’t give Parliament a vote if she wasn’t willing to abide by it”.

Stewart says that this “underlined the fact that what the PM has announced today is not ‘taking no deal off the table’; she has simply accepted that if it comes to the crunch, she will allow MPs to bind her hands”.

In fact the statement was “classic May”, tweets the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. On the one hand “it is clear - Brexit could be delayed”, and yet on the other it is “completely opaque” as “what would she and the government actually try to do if the choice was between delaying it or leaving with no deal?”, Kuenssberg asks.

Leading Tory Brexiteer Theresa Villiers told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “It’s frustrating that the prime minister is partially backtracking on her repeated statements that we would leave [the EU] on 29 March.”

But it is not the first time May has changed her mind over Brexit. Here are some other key U-turns she has made since June 2016:

From Remain to Leave

During the EU referendum campaign, May “was not a vocal Remainer but she was a firm one”, says the Financial Times. Since the position at 10 Downing Street opened up, however, she has pursued a harder course on Brexit than even many Leave voters envisioned, vowing to be a “bloody difficult woman”, and to take the UK out of the single market and end freedom of movement.

The PM “has overcompensated, trying (and ultimately failing) to convince Leave voters that she has become one of them”, says Stefan Stern, visiting professor of management practice at City, University of London, in an article on The Conversation.

“Hence all the solemn talk of the national interest”, Stern adds. And yet “she has never been able to declare that the UK will be better off because of Brexit”.

Over the sequencing of the Brexit negotiations

In June 2017, May’s government quietly changed its mind on the sequencing of Brexit negotiations.

The Government had said it wanted to agree the terms of Britain’s future relationship with the EU before getting on to the divorce arrangements. Meanwhile, the EU said it wanted negotiations to run in the opposite order.

Then-Brexit secretary David Davis said the resulting clash would be “the row of the summer” - but come the first day of negotiations, the Government unexpectedly capitulated to the EU’s demands.

On EU migrant rights after Brexit

At the beginning of 2018, the PM “caused surprise” by saying that migrants arriving after Brexit should not have the same rights as those who came before, reports The Times.

But that proposal was challenged by the EU, which said that preventing EU citizens who arrive after March 2019 from staying indefinitely would breach free-movement rules, jeopardising any Brexit deal. May subsequently announced that EU citizens and their families who have been living in the UK for at least five years by the end of 2020 would be able to apply for “settled status”, giving them the right to remain and work in the UK indefinitely.

On a meaningful vote last December

May pulled the parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal at the end of last year, saying it “would be rejected by a significant margin” if MPs voted on it.

Her U-turn “came after she and senior ministers had spent days insisting the vote would go ahead, despite the scale of opposition from MPs being obvious”, says the BBC.

Instead, she planned to avoid a humiliating defeat by returning to Brussels to seek to renegotiate the backstop.

As it turned out, when the meaningful vote finally did take place four weeks later, May suffered the heaviest parliamentary defeat of any British prime minister in the democratic era.


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