Editor’s Note: Jane Merrick is a British political journalist and former political editor of the Independent on Sunday newspaper. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
There have been many crucial weeks in the ongoing Brexit saga, but this week could mark the moment when the mist finally clears and Theresa May finds a way forward.
But in order to do so, she will need the help of the UK’s lawmakers. And they need to act fast.
Parliament has, so far, blocked the Prime Minister’s plan on how the country should exit the European Union. But in a series of votes on Tuesday, it is the turn of lawmakers to set out what they want Brexit to look like.
This isn’t only the point at which the House of Commons needs to reach a decision. It is also time for May to come up with a real alternative that can win support in both parliament and in Brussels.
There is a renewed urgency to the votes this week. As of Monday, there are 60 days left before Britain must leave the EU, with or without a deal. Only legislation or approval from Brussels will allow that deadline to be extended. But in reality, that timescale is much tighter: of those 60 days, lawmakers are sitting for just over half because of weekends, a February week-long recess and most Fridays when the Commons does not meet.
During that time, Parliament must not only agree a Brexit deal but also, according to CNN research, pass nine bills and 500 other pieces of legislation related to EU withdrawal. The government is considering asking Parliament to sit on Fridays and weekends – and to even scrap its one week holiday – to make more time.
Fears over a no-deal Brexit hang heavy over Westminster and the rest of the country. On Sunday morning, the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock did not dismiss reports that the government was considering the option of martial law in the event of a no deal, with the prospect of the army on Britain’s streets to quell any rioting, sparked by possible food and medicine shortages.
Hancock said the government was “looking at all possibilities.”
The British Chambers of Commerce told The Observer newspaper that thousands of UK companies had already triggered their emergency plans in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, and that at least 35 were already in the process of relocating to a different country. This follows last week’s appeal by the Queen for people to seek “common ground” in a thinly-veiled message to lawmakers to reach consensus on Brexit.
All of this will be focusing minds in Westminster. But, with the Commons split on the type of Brexit the UK should follow, the next few days are not going to be easy. What happens this week is largely in the hands of the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, who will choose which amendments to May’s plan will be put to a vote.
On the staunchly pro-Brexit side, there are amendments to put a time limit on the Northern Ireland backstop, the measure in the Withdrawal Agreement that safeguards against a hard border with Ireland.
On the soft-Brexit side, lawmakers are pressuring for more time to negotiate a consensus without time running out before March 29th, effectively blocking a no-deal. This amendment, tabled by the former cabinet minister and Labour Party politician Yvette Cooper, is gathering wide cross-party support and has a good chance of success. It could delay Brexit for between three and nine months, to ensure a workable formal deal is agreed by everyone.
Tuesday’s events will be yet another dangerous moment for the Prime Minister, who has already faced - and survived - no-confidence votes in her own leadership and in her government. Some Cabinet ministers have hinted they could resign if a no-deal Brexit looks likely.
On Sunday, the Irish government made clear it would oppose any attempt to water down the Northern Ireland backstop, the key demand of Brexiteers. Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said: “We have already agreed to compromises. The backstop is part of a balanced package that isn’t going to change. The European Parliament will not ratify it, it’s as simple as that.”
In any case, support for time-limiting or removing the backstop may not be as widespread as that for curbing a no-deal, shifting Parliament away from the cliff edge departure.
There are many more twists and turns to go before March 29. But this week could see a new consensus around a softer Brexit.