The UK government laid the groundwork for a potential Brexit delay, as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt became the most senior minister yet to suggest the deadline could be pushed beyond the end of March.
“It’s true that if we ended up approving a deal in the days before March 29, then we might need some extra time to pass critical legislation,” Hunt told BBC Radio. “It’s difficult to know” how long talks with the European Union will last, he said, as the government seeks to renegotiate the terms of divorce.
Hours later, Andrea Leadsom, the minister in charge of the government’s legislative program, told members of Parliament they may need to work through a planned recess in February “to make progress on key business.” A government official later confirmed the holiday would be canceled.
Though Theresa May has repeatedly said she doesn’t want to delay Brexit, the prime minister is still trying to come up with proposals after Parliament voted in favour of ditching the most contentious part of her deal with Brussels - the arrangements for the post-Brexit Irish border, which will become the UK’s new land border with the EU. She’s spent the past two days talking to lawmakers - including opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
May is trying to find alternatives to the so-called Irish backstop, which aims to keep the border open even if the UK and EU are unable to reach an agreement on future trading relations. Detractors in May’s Conservative Party, as well as her Northern Irish allies in Parliament, argue the provision will create regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and mainland UK, as well as keeping Britain tightly bound to EU rules.
May is looking at options to replace the backstop, whether a sunset clause, a mechanism by which the UK can leave it, or alternative arrangements such as technology to ensure physical checks are not needed. On Thursday, May met influential Conservative backbencher Nicky Morgan and four Tories who came up with a renegotiation plan to bridge divisions in the party.
But the EU is adamant it won’t reopen the withdrawal agreement or renegotiate the backstop, while even members of May’s own Cabinet have expressed doubts she can make headway. Business Secretary Greg Clark said late Wednesday the technology isn’t currently available that could solve the border issue.
Hunt told the BBC that the UK’s proposals for the Ireland border will take some time to pull together. “This is not going to happen in the next few days,” he said. “We have to put these proposals together, we need to work them up.”