Sending lawmakers off on an unexpected Easter break after the Brexit deadline was extended for six months, Theresa May told them to use the opportunity to “reflect” on how to get out of the current stalemate that has left the UK in limbo.
For herself, the Prime Minister is thought to be taking a few days off – perhaps on one of her favorite walking holidays with her husband – before returning to Westminster, clear-headed and refreshed, to try to finally find a deal on Brexit. And yet, arguably, while she deserves the break, leaving the scene is the last thing she should be doing right now.
The decision by EU leaders to extend the deadline for Brexit until October 31, at the end of a fraught summit that ran into the early hours of Thursday morning, was akin to a pressure valve being released in Westminster.
Lawmakers tired and – in some reported cases, ill – from the repeated late nights and close-run votes on Brexit were relieved that the Easter recess, which had been canceled to try to reach a deal before the old deadline of Friday April 12, was back on. It is their first break since Christmas.
Yet that release of pressure has created a vacuum into which the more hardcore Brexit enthusiasts have rushed to seize the agenda from the Prime Minister.
On Friday Nigel Farage, who as UKIP leader was at the forefront of the campaign to leave the EU, launched his new Brexit Party’s campaign for the European elections.
Prominent Conservative Brexiteers who have their eyes on the leadership and job of Prime Minister when May finally steps down are also staying around to get their slice of the agenda. Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary and now a leading contender to succeed May, has been in secret talks with the pro-Brexit Northern Ireland party the DUP, which holds the balance of power in the Commons. Ambition never sleeps.
Although May needed more time to secure a compromise on Brexit, this vacuum is a dangerous period – even for the Prime Minister who has survived many parliamentary defeats and attempts to unseat her.
While the Brexit process was in a state of deadlock, May nevertheless had some control over that deadlock. She could not find a way out, but at least she was the one dictating the terms of the talks with the Labour Party, the person representing the UK at that Brussels summit, and, to some extent, in control of the news agenda.
By taking her foot off the gas – even temporarily – May has let other, louder voices overtake her.
If she wants to take back control, to borrow a phrase from Brexit campaigners, she should not stay away for long. While Westminster was in stasis, it suited the PM, relatively speaking. Now there is more time on the Brexit countdown clock, anything could happen.
Crucially, the Prime Minister needs to redouble the efforts of talks between the government and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to reach a compromise deal that will have enough votes in the Commons to enable Brexit to take place.
Those talks are ongoing between ministers and Corbyn’s representatives, but they can’t be allowed to dwindle to nothing just because Parliament is on a time-out.
May needs to take charge of them personally and to make a breakthrough by next weekend, before the Commons returns the following week – to not only prove to Brussels she is making real progress but also to prevent a challenge to her own leadership by increasingly rebellious Brexiteer Conservatives.
If they fail, she must either press again for her original deal, or accept that lawmakers should have another attempt at indicative votes to come up with the most popular alternative. If she can’t prove she has an answer, there will be a concerted attempt by her own party to force her to resign.
The next official deadline for Brexit is June, when the UK must produce a progress report to EU leaders on how it’s trying to solve the Brexit deadlock. But in reality, the date looming for the Prime Minister is April 23, when Parliament returns. She cannot come back from her “holiday” empty-handed.