Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s British government doubled down Sunday, insisting it would leave the European Union in 11 days' time despite parliament forcing yet another delay request.
In a day of high drama on Saturday, members in the House of Commons passed up the chance to decide on the revised withdrawal agreement that the prime minister had negotiated with the European Union last week.
That defeat leaves Johnson under mounting pressure to find a way out of paralysing impasse on when and how Britain would leave the EU bloc after Britons narrowly voted to exit in a 2016 referendum.
Late Saturday, Johnson reluctantly sent European Council President Donald Tusk a letter requesting an extension, but he refused to sign it. He was legally required to do so after MPs triggered a law mandating he write to EU leaders asking for another Brexit delay, therefore avoiding the risk that Britain crashes out in less than two weeks
The Conservative leader sent a second, signed letter insisting he was not seeking a change to the Brexit deadline, which has already been postponed twice, warning that "a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners."
Senior Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, the government's Brexit planning chief, was nonetheless adamant that Britain would leave the EU on schedule.
"Yes. We are going to leave on October 31. We have the means and the ability to do so," he told Sky News television.
EU “fed up”
Later this week, the government will bring forward the domestic legislation needed to move forward with the deal, the first vote as soon as Tuesday.
Separately, it is seeking a new yes-or-no vote on approving the deal on Monday, although this may fall foul of parliamentary procedure.
"If we get the legislation through then there is no extension. October 31 is within sight," said Gove.
He said it was dangerous to assume that the 27 other EU leaders would grant an extension.
More than three years on from the June 2016 vote to leave the EU, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told BBC television that from his conversations with other EU capitals, "they are fed up with this now -- and we are fed up with it".
The Labour main opposition has lambasted Johnson's deal as a "sell-out" and pushed for the delay.
However, senior figures hinted Sunday that they could let it go through, subject to amendments that would include a second referendum for voters to decide if they wanted to remain in the bloc after all.
"What we are trying to achieve is that this deal in particular, but any deal, is put up against Remain in a referendum," the party's Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told the BBC. "And we will have to see tactically how we get there."
Europe mulls response
Ambassadors and senior officials from the other 27 member states met Sunday to consider Johnson’s delay request.
"The EU is keeping all options open and has therefore initiated the ratification process so that it can be handed over to the European Parliament on Monday," an EU diplomat told AFP. "The EU will probably pursue this strategy until there is clarity on the British side," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Tusk will spend a "few days" canvassing member state leaders, and diplomats said this would mean the British parliament will have to vote on Brexit again before hearing their decision.
MPs voted by 322 votes to 306 on Saturday to support former Conservative MP Oliver Letwin's amendment to buy extra time.
Letwin said he would now switch and vote for the deal. Former interior minister Amber Rudd said the same, meaning Johnson is just a few votes short.
The Brexit date has already been pushed back twice from the original March 29, to the fury of those who wanted to chart their own course and abandon the European project after nearly 50 years.