The Brexit process may have to be extended in order to get key legislation in place ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said.
He said a delay beyond the scheduled exit date of March 29 would become necessary if talks over changes to the withdrawal deal drag on too long.
Prime Minister Theresa May saw the proposals she had agreed with the EU voted down by a huge majority in the Commons earlier this month.
She now plans to return to the negotiating table to seek ‘alternative arrangements’ for the controversial Irish border backstop that many MPs refuse to accept.
The backstop is a contingency designed to stop the return of checks on goods and people on Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland.
The EU has said that the withdrawal deal has been agreed and there will be no renegotiation.
The Foreign Secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that progress made in the next few weeks would determine if Brexit had to be delayed.
He said “It is true that if we ended up approving the deal in the days before March 29, then we might need some extra time to pass critical legislation.
“But if we are able to make progress sooner, then that might not be necessary. We can’t know at this stage exactly which of those scenarios would happen.”
Hunt added that the government was not ruling out any potential solutions to the Irish border issue and that it needed to show commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.
The agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland after years of violence and also protects against the return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Hunt said the Government would also need to address EU fears that the UK could ‘access the single market by the back door.’
“If we can overcome those two issues, which I think we can, then we will be able to have substantive discussions,” he added.
Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom had previously said the EU could be willing to grant the UK a ‘couple of extra weeks’ to complete Brexit preparations.
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the government ‘had two-and-a-half years to negotiate and has failed to do so.’
As the Brexit deadline draws closer, MPs have had their February break cancelled and there are plans for Parliament to sit for longer hours to deal with Brexit.
A Downing Street spokesman insisted that the Government was committed to the original March 29 leaving date.