Theresa May has ditched her Brexit plan to trigger Article 50 this week

Adam Payne
Theresa May

REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON — Theresa May will not trigger Article 50 and initiate Britain's formal departure from the European Union until the final few days of March, the prime minister has indicated.

May had been expected to  trigger Article 50 — the two year process by which Britain will leave the EU — as early as Tuesday afternoon, after the Brexit bill passed both Houses of Parliaments.

However, Downing Street confirmed today that she will wait another two weeks before getting the exit process underway.

A spokesperson for the prime minister was insistent on Monday that triggering Article 50 at the end of March was always May's intention.

A Downing Street spokesperson said this afternoon: "We've been clear we will trigger Article 50 by the end of March." 

"I've said 'end' many times but I didn't put it in capital letters strongly [enough]."

Reports that Brexit would officially get underway this week gained momentum on Monday morning when it emerged that the prime minister would make a statement to parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

The timing of the PM's EU council statement, shortly after the Brexit bill is expected to receive Royal Assent, appeared to confirm long-standing reports that Article 50 would be triggered this week.

However, that statement has now been moved to midday on Tuesday and is now not likely to be the formal trigger for Brexit.

It's possible that the trigger date has been pushed back as a result of Nicola Sturgeon's announcement that she will ask UK government for permission to hold another Scottish independence referendum in either 2018 or 2019.

In a speech in Edinburgh on Monday morning, the Scottish First Minister said that May's pursuit of a hard Brexit had left her with little choice but to give Scots another opportunity to vote for independence from the Britain.

May criticised the move and said it would bring "huge economic uncertainty" at a crucial time.

In an official statement, the prime minister's spokesperson said:

"Only a little over two years ago people in Scotland voted decisively to remain part of our United Kingdom in a referendum which the Scottish government defined as a 'once in a generation' vote.

"The evidence clearly shows that a majority of people in Scotland do not want a second independence referendum.

"Another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time."

Sturgeon first needs to secure the approval of Scottish Parliament before going to Westminster to request another referendum. 

May's spokesperson repeatedly refused this afternoon to say whether she would facilitate such a referendum.

Asked whether there would be "greater clarity" about whether Downing Street would approve a referendum, May's spokesman replied "I'm sure that will be the case."

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