MPs are due their half-term break in just over a fortnight’s time. The working assumption in government circles, however, is that they won’t get it. There remains a hefty backlog of legislation to be passed before 29 March and, barring an Article 50 extension, the time needs to be found somewhere.
The suggestion that MPs would lose their February recess has been doing the rounds since the autumn, but a decision has yet to be made by Downing Street. The uncertainty is taking its toll on already restive Conservative MPs, increasing numbers of whom believe that cancelling their week off would be a mistake.
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? The argument against cancelling recess, however, is nonetheless a bit more substantial than “let us go skiing”. Some in government fear that to do so with such short notice – not even Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the Commons, knows whether it will happen – would antagonise MPs forced to arrange childcare and cancel holidays. This, they say, would represent a profound failure of party management at a time when Downing Street is in desperate need of biddable MPs and goodwill among them.
Others argue that cancelling recess only appears an imperative as so much parliamentary time is already being wasted. Even now, MPs do not sit most Fridays and adjourn early on Thursdays – and some fear the extra week in February would end up with a similarly threadbare timetable that pleased nobody. “There’s no reason why we can’t sit 9am to midnight on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” says one disgruntled member of the government. Even those who believe MPs should work through the break believe ministers should start there and aim to pass legislation as quickly as possible on the current timetable.
The decision they eventually take will be determined by which political risk feels greater: upsetting a parliamentary party whose loyalty to the executive is already frayed, or sacrificing a valuable chunk of parliamentary time before Brexit day. The latter poses its own risk as far as party management goes: some Eurosceptics could see it as a tacit admission that the government is prepared to delay the Brexit day they are now theologically attached to. But despite the shortness of time, many of their colleagues in government will be quietly relieved.