As the Cabinet met at 10 Downing Street, her own Brexit Secretary admitted: “This is a moment of crisis for our country.”
The Prime Minister was considering asking for a lengthy extension of Article 50 of nine months or more, a timescale that would open up room for cross-party talks on a completely fresh withdrawal agreement.
Mrs May is likely to ask other EU leaders to allow an “escape clause” for a short two or three month delay if she can revive her stalled deal and win a meaningful vote in the Commons next Tuesday.
The Government’s inability to deliver produced a gale of fury from European ministers gathered in Brussels ahead of this week’s EU summit, which will consider the PM’s request for more time.
Germany said the whole of Europe was “exhausted” from having to deal with the British side, while France pinned the blame for the “unacceptable uncertainty” squarely on the UK government.
Mrs May’s hopes of wearing down opposition at Westminster in a series of votes on her deal was torpedoed last night by Speaker John Bercow .
He made a ruling, based on a 1604 convention, that there must be “substantial” changes to any deal before it could be voted on again.
MPs believe Mrs May will argue that a long Brexit delay, if agreed at the summit on Thursday, would amount to a substantial change and meet Mr Bercow’s test, enabling a Commons vote just day’s before the original Brexit date of March 29.
A senior DUP source told the Standard: “It’s unlikely that we are going to reach any sort of agreement before the PM travels to Brussels.”
More than 30 Tory MPs have also dug in to oppose Mrs May’s blueprint.
In Brussels, where European ministers held pre-summit talks, there was open disgust at the British failure to deliver.
Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth told reporters: “It is not just a game. It is an extremely serious situation, not just for the people in the United Kingdom, but for the people in the European Union.”
He said the EU was “really exhausted by these negotiations” and added: “I expect clear and precise proposals [from] the British government why such an extension is necessary. … Dear friends in London, please deliver. The clock is ticking.”
French Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said Britain must come up with a reason for any Brexit delay — and said a no-deal divorce could happen.
“This uncertainty is unacceptable,” she said.
“How do we get out of this deadlock? – this is a question for the British authorities.”
“It’s a choice to be made by the UK.” She asked: “Grant an extension – what for? Time is not a solution, it’s a method. If there is an objective and a strategy and it has to come from London.”
DUP sources said there were “no plans” at present for leader Arlene Foster to fly to London to meet Mrs May.
Downing Street is pinning its hopes of a breakthrough on the 10-strong bloc of MPs pivoting behind her deal in return for assurances on future talks, and possibly a cash injection to the Province as part of a renewal of the confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives.
Mr Barclay said ministers will continue to press on with the deal as it was “the only deal on the table”.
He told Sky: “The EU is clear it is the only deal on the table. Business need the certainty of this deal and it is time that Parliament comes together and gets behind it.”
Mr Barclay ruled out ending the session of Parliament early to get round the ruling. “I think the one thing everyone would agree on is involving Her Majesty in any of the issues around Brexit is not the way forward so I don’t see that as a realistic option,” he said.
The Speaker refused to be drawn when he was asked a series of questions regarding his controversial ruling as he walked towards the Palace of Westminster.
George Ciamba, the Romanian minister chairing the talks, tweeted a picture of dense clouds over Europe as he flew into Brussels. “The biggest issue right now is that it’s getting more foggy,” he said. “We need to have more clarity from London.”
One Brussels official asked how diplomats could negotiate successfully with a Prime Minister whose promises to deliver in the Commons might be blocked by the Speaker.
“We can change the date, add some new words – but how will anyone be able to establish that Bercow views any changes as ‘substantive’?” asked the official. “She could go for a revised Political Declaration, but is that a substantial change?”
Today’s ministerial summit was held to prepare for a full-scale summit starting on Thursday where Mrs May will formally ask for an extension of Article 50. However the length of any delay and any conditions that may be attached is a matter for the EU 27 to rule on.
Trust in the UK was further reduced when Brexiteer MPs said they would use a lengthy extension of Britain’s membership to cause trouble in the EU and demand concessions.
Tory MP Marcus Fysh was quoted in The Times saying: “I think the leverage an extension would give us would be greater than the current transition period.”
Fellow ERG member David Jones said: “A strong leader could make life difficult for the EU in an extension and force Brussels to engage on alternatives to the backstop.”
He added: “With an extension you would have full membership rights and the opportunity to be able to reopen the bad deal that is on the table.”