Theresa May wants to put her Brexit deal to a parliamentary vote for a third time, after suffering two resounding defeats

London (AFP) - MPs vote Thursday on whether to seek a Brexit delay, as the chaotic process to end Britain’s 46-year membership of the EU plunges the country into deep political crisis.

As Britain heads towards Brexit day with no plan, parliament divided and a prime minister seemingly with little control over events, Donald Trump waded in to suggest that the process could have been handled better.

The US president, once an enthusiastic backer of Brexit, said he was “surprised to see how badly it has all gone”.

The press described the situation as “meltdown” and business leaders have raised the alarm about the economic cost of ending 46 years of ties with Britain’s closest trading partner without a deal.

Brexit has left Britain deeply divided

Prime Minister Theresa May has negotiated a divorce agreement with Brussels but MPs have twice rejected it, with some arguing it ties Britain too closely to the EU and others still opposed to the whole idea.

After the House of Commons also voted on Wednesday to reject a “no deal” scenario, May said the only option now was to seek a delay.

But she warned that without a deal, the EU would likely only offer a lengthy delay that risks undermining the 2016 referendum vote to leave.

She is therefore planning to bring her agreement back to MPs for a third time, likely on Monday or Tuesday, before she faces the EU at a leaders’ summit in Brussels next Thursday.

- Rethink Brexit strategy -

European Union leaders must unanimously approve any Brexit delay and have said they would consider any request from London, but need to know for how long – and what for.

In a motion to be put to MPs at 1700 GMT, May sets out two possible scenarios.

If MPs accept her Brexit deal by next Wednesday, she will ask EU leaders for a delay until June 30 to allow the treaty to be ratified.

But if they reject it, she warns the delay could be much longer, forcing Britain to take part in European Parliament elections in May.

EU Council chief Donald Tusk said Thursday that the bloc could approve a long postponement “if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.

Parliament has voted twice against May's Brexit deal

He reflected Brussels’ long-standing position that another, closer relationship is possible if May is willing to compromise, notably by abandoning her opposition to joining an EU customs union.

But other European leaders have warned that any extension must have a purpose, and Britain must decide what it wants.

Without agreement, a “no deal” exit is still possible, and both sides are still preparing.

On Wednesday, London announced a series of draconian contingency measures, including scrapping tariffs on most imports and not applying checks on the Irish border.

Businesses have warned the country is “staring down the precipice” and the CBI lobby group said most of its members wanted a delay.

Its deputy director general Josh Hardie warned that MPs must take a “new approach”.

“Any extra time must be used by MPs to finally craft a solution that protects livelihoods and communities across the UK,” he said.

- Referendum, or resign? -

The parliamentary deadlock reflects the deep divisions that remain in Britain three years after the referendum, which saw Britons narrowly vote to leave the EU.

A group of MPs have put forward an amendment for Thursday’s vote calling for a new EU referendum, with an option to stay in the bloc.

However, the main opposition Labour party will not back it, and the main “People’s Vote” campaign says that now is not the time.

Speaking at the White House, Trump said another referendum “would be very unfair to people who have won”.

Trump said the chaotic situation was a “shame”, adding: “I think it could have been negotiated in a different manner, frankly.”

Another amendment on Thursday will seek to put control of the Brexit process into parliament’s hands if May’s deal does not pass again.

She is still seeking to persuade her Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs, and her allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to back the deal.

But one Conservative former minister, George Freeman, suggested May might have to promise to resign.

“If, to get the votes for that, the PM has to promise that she will go after the withdrawal treaty is secure, to allow a new leader to reunite the country and oversee the next stage, she should,” he said.