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May rejects petition to revoke article 50 despite 1.5m signatures

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/03/2019 Alex Hern
a screenshot of a cell phone: A screenshot of the petitions website’s error message. © Petitions.parliament.uk A screenshot of the petitions website’s error message.

Theresa May “will not countenance” revoking article 50 despite a public petition calling for the Brexit deadline to be cancelled passing 1.5 million signatures.

When asked for the prime minister’s view on the petition, a No 10 spokeswoman said May worried failing to deliver Brexit would cause “potentially irreparable damage to public trust”.

She said: “The prime minister has long been clear that failing to deliver on the referendum result would be a failure of our democracy and something she couldn’t countenance.” BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MARCH 21 :   Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (L) speaks with Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel  (C) and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) during the  EU leaders meeting in Brussels, Belgium on  21 March 2019. 
 (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) © 2019 Anadolu Agency BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - MARCH 21 : Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (L) speaks with Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel (C) and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) during the EU leaders meeting in Brussels, Belgium on 21 March 2019. (Photo by Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

More than a 1.5 million people have signed a plea for article 50 to be revoked. The list of names grew so rapidly on Thursday that the parliamentary petition website crashed several times.

The petition began gaining signatures on Wednesday evening after Theresa May criticised MPs for not approving her Brexit deal but by Thursday the list of names was growing so rapidly that the parliamentary petition website crashed several times. At the time of the first crash the petition had received almost 600,000 signatures and was growing at a rate of 1,500 a minute.

Anti-Brexit demonstration in front of the Le Berlaymon EU Commission Building before the EU Leader Summit in Brussels, Belgium. Protesters arrived by bus calling for a referendum, with EU and British flags, two of the them were wearing masks of British Prime Minister Theresa May and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. March 21, 2019 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images) © Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto Anti-Brexit demonstration in front of the Le Berlaymon EU Commission Building before the EU Leader Summit in Brussels, Belgium. Protesters arrived by bus calling for a referendum, with EU and British flags, two of the them were wearing masks of British Prime Minister Theresa May and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. March 21, 2019 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

At about 9am a message appeared stating that the site was “down for maintenance” and asking users to “please try again later”.

A House of Commons spokesperson told the Guardian: “The petitions site is experiencing technical difficulties and we are working to get it running again urgently. It has been caused by a large and sustained load on the system.”

The site was restored by 9.40am but collapsed several more times until it was fixed in the late morning.

By 3pm the petition had its millionth signature. Ironically, the milestone was delayed as the weight of users checking for updates again forced the site briefly offline. By 9pm it had passed 1.5m and was approaching 1.7m names.

Anti-Brexit demonstration in front of the Le Berlaymon EU Commission Building before the EU Leader Summit in Brussels, Belgium. Protesters arrived by bus calling for a referendum, with EU and British flags, two of the them were wearing masks of British Prime Minister Theresa May and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. March 21, 2019 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images) © Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto Anti-Brexit demonstration in front of the Le Berlaymon EU Commission Building before the EU Leader Summit in Brussels, Belgium. Protesters arrived by bus calling for a referendum, with EU and British flags, two of the them were wearing masks of British Prime Minister Theresa May and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. March 21, 2019 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The petition calls on the government to revoke article 50 and keep Britain in the EU. It states: “The government repeatedly claims exiting the EU is the will of the people. We need to put a stop to this claim by proving the strength of public support now for remaining in the EU. A people’s vote may not happen, so vote now.”

It has been buoyed by support from celebrities including Hugh Grant, Jennifer Saunders and Brian Cox. The cause was also given surprise backing on Thursday morning by the chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, who told Sky News: “If on Tuesday MPs do not back the withdrawal agreement then the only way for the UK to take back control of the Brexit process is to revoke the article 50 notification.”

Tom Forth, the head of data at the Open Data Institute Leeds, said the distribution of signatures across the UK was uneven. The signatures were “extremely concentrated in just a few places, and a very strong correlation with places that voted remain,” he said.

On Wednesday evening, Andrew White, the chief technology officer of the digital consultancy that built the petitions website, tweeted that the petition was receiving “an average of 1,000 signatures per minute. Not too bad but nowhere near crashing the site – you all need to try harder tomorrow.”

The following morning, White conceded defeat and explained the technical error that had led to the failure. “Well done everyone – the site crashed because calculating the trending count became too much of a load on the database.”

Facts to know about Brexit

This latest petition is not yet the biggest call for the government to put aside the result of the 2016 referendum. A petition launched before the referendum, calling on the government to run a second referendum if the vote for the winning side was less than 60% on a turnout of less than 75% got little attention before the vote but more than 4 million signatures afterwards.

The creator of that petition, William Oliver Healey, was a leave voter, who later expressed frustration that his petition had been “hijacked” by remainers. “This petition was created at a time (over a month ago) when it was looking unlikely that leave were going to win, with the intention of making it harder for remain to further shackle us to the EU,” he wrote on Facebook at the time.

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