Ministers remain determined to take Britain out of the EU at the “earliest opportunity”, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said, as Brussels appeared poised to grant a lengthy delay to Britain’s departure.
Theresa May meets the leaders of the remaining EU 27 later on Wednesday to press her case for a further extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process to June 30 to allow her more time to get a deal through Parliament.
But amid increasing frustration among EU leaders, European Council president Donald Tusk is recommending a longer delay of up to a year, with an opportunity to leave before then if a deal is agreed.
However the prospect of an extended delay has infuriated many Conservative MPs, already angry that the UK has missed its original departure date of March 29.
In the Commons on Tuesday, 97 Tory MPs voted against a motion backing Mrs May’s call for an extension which only passed with the support of opposition MPs.
Mr Barclay insisted the Prime Minister did not want to see a lengthy delay, which was why the Government was asking only for an extension to the end of June.
He said the UK could still leave before that date if it got an agreement through Parliament in time and that ministers were committed to leaving at the “earliest opportunity”.
“I don’t want to see a long extension. The Prime Minister doesn’t want to see a long extension. That is why the request today is to June 30 in order that we can leave as soon as possible,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Mr Barclay however sidestepped questions as to whether Mrs May could remain in office if the EU insisted on a longer delay, saying it was the failure of MPs to support a deal which had handed the initiative back to Brussels.
“That is a consequence of Parliament, not the Government. The Government has agreed a deal with the EU. It is Parliament that has forced this on the Government,” he said.