UK will take part in European elections, Theresa May's deputy admits

The UK will have to hold European elections, despite hopes from the government a Brexit deal would be done by then, says the PM's de facto deputy

 David Lidington
David Lidington

The vote is due on 23 May, but Theresa May said the UK would not have to take part if MPs agreed a Brexit plan first.

Now, David Lidington says "regrettably" it is "not going to be possible to finish that process" before the date the UK legally has to take part.

He said the government would try to make the delay "as short as possible".

The UK was due to leave the EU on 29 March, but as no deal was agreed by Parliament, the EU extended the deadline to 31 October.

It can leave the bloc earlier, but if the UK has not left by 23 May, it is legally obliged to take part in the EU-wide poll and to send MEPs to Brussels.

May's spokesman said she "deeply regrets" that the UK did not leave as planned in March and recognised many people felt "great frustration" that the European elections were going ahead.

But she hoped Parliament would agree a Brexit plan before MEPs start their session in July.

The deadline to register for the EU elections is Tuesday 7 May.

The government has resumed talks with Labour to try to break the deadlock in Parliament over the terms of withdrawing from the EU. It has promised that if no compromise is reached it will offer indicative votes on possible next steps to Parliament.

Labour's shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey said Tuesday's talks were "very robust", but nothing had been agreed, and the government still needed to move on its "red lines" in order to reach a compromise.

Downing Street said the talks had been "constructive and detailed" and they would continue on Wednesday afternoon.

A number of other parties have already announced their candidates and launched their European election campaigns, but the Conservatives have yet to do the same.

Cabinet Office Minister Lidington said. "We very much hoped that we would be able to get our exit sorted… so that those elections did not have to take place, but legally they do have to take place unless our withdrawal has been given legal effect."

Lidington said the government would be "redoubling efforts" in its talks with other parties to find a way forward to "make sure that the delay after [the elections] is as short as possible".

He added, "We would like to be in a situation… certainly to get this done and dusted by the summer recess."

Government sources say if the Brexit process is completed before 30 June, UK MEPs will not take up their seats at all. If it is done and dusted after that date but before Parliament begins its summer recess in July, MEPs will only need to sit for a month, until 1 August.

Sources estimate that the cost of holding the European elections will be roughly £150m.

Some Brexiteers are angry at May's efforts to find a compromise with Labour after her deal with the EU was effectively rejected by MPs three times.

One leading Eurosceptic, Sir Bill Cash, told the Press Association "the time has come" for the PM to resign and she "needs to be given a date".

But Chancellor Philip Hammond defended the cross-party talks, suggesting the government had no other option.