EU officials said the prime minister had suggested she was “ready to consider” extending Britain’s transition out of the European Union for a further year to allow more time to resolve the impasse over the problem of the Irish border.
It would mean the UK remaining within the single market and customs union and subject to EU rules and regulations for almost three years after the official date of Brexit in March 2019, and more than five years after the referendum vote to leave the bloc.
Angry Brexiteers said the concession would delay when the UK could sign new trade deals around the world and mean taxpayers paying billions of pounds more in additional contributions to the EU.
Addressing reporters on Thursday, Mrs May admitted there had been a proposal to “create an option to extend the implementation period”.
However, she stressed this would “only be a matter of months”.
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage said: “Mrs May’s acceptance of an extension to the transition period will take us to the next general election which may mean we never leave at all.”
Tory MP Nadine Dorries repeated her call for former Brexit secretary David Davis to replace Mrs May as leader.
“We cannot find the money to fund our frontline police properly, we cannot find the £2bn for the vulnerable on Universal Credit, but we can mysteriously find billions to bung to the EU for the unnecessary extra year Clegg and Blair asked Barnier for to waylay Brexit,” said Ms Dorries.
Mr Davis’s former chief of staff Stewart Jackson asked: “If you can’t – or in the EU’s case won’t – resolve the backstop issue now because it’s an issue of principle than why will it take another three years to resolve it? Will it not be an issue of principle once we have coughed up billions more in UK taxpayers’ cash?”
Conservative MP and former minister Nick Boles tweeted: “So the government is going to propose a €17 billion extension to the transition but refuse a £2 billion bail out of Universal Credit- good luck with that!”
Leaders of the remaining 27 countries on Wednesday agreed “not enough progress” had been achieved in negotiations and decided to ditch plans for a special summit next month to sign off on a UK divorce deal.
Mrs May has urged “courage, trust and leadership on both sides” in her speech to EU leaders at a crunch summit in Brussels.
With just 160 days to go to the official date of Brexit, Mrs May urged the EU27 to find a “creative” way out of the current dilemma.
A day earlier, she had issued a dramatic unity plea to ministers, calling on them to “stand together” for the sake of a Brexit deal, after a three-hour-long cabinet meeting ahead of the crucial 48 hours of Brexit talks.
UK officials stressed that the Prime Minister was not proposing any extension to the period already agreed.
This week’s summit had been billed as “the moment of truth” when agreement was needed to allow time for ratification in the Westminster and European parliaments.
But Mrs May did not come forward with new “concrete proposals” on the border issue, which European Council president Donald Tusk said were needed to break the deadlock.
As he arrived for the Brussels meeting, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had said “we need time, we need much more time” for talks, vowing to work “calmly and patiently” for a deal in the coming weeks.
Negotiations are stuck over the issue of a “backstop” to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland until a wider trade deal can be signed that avoids the need for frontier checks.