Boris Johnson was on Saturday forced to write to the EU seeking a delay to Brexit, after his “do or die” plan to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 was thrown into disarray following another House of Commons defeat.
Mr. Johnson had vowed not to seek an extension to the Article 50 process, but on Saturday night he told EU Council president Donald Tusk he would comply with the so-called Benn act and seek a delay before an 11pm deadline. It was a humiliating moment for the prime minister, but Mr Johnson said he was “undaunted” and there was optimism in Downing Street that despite the Commons setback he was close to winning the backing of MPs for his new Brexit deal. Mr Johnson in September said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask the EU for a Brexit delay.
But on Saturday the UK government sent three letters to Brussels, including one requesting an extension to January 2020 that was not signed by the prime minister, and a further note from Mr Johnson making clear that he did not want a prolongation of Article 50 talks. In a letter signed by Mr Johnson to Mr Tusk, the prime minister said he did not favour an extension as it would “damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners “ and he was confident of passing his Brexit deal by October 31. Financial Times analysis after Saturday’s vote suggests Boris Johnson may have a Commons majority of five for his Brexit deal, assuming MPs vote along the same patterns whenever his deal returns.
A senior EU official said Brussels would not immediately respond to the request for an extension saying it would likely take Mr Tusk “a few days” to finish consultations with EU capitals. That gives Mr Johnson some breathing space; he will make another attempt to win the backing of MPs for his deal, either on Monday with another so-called “meaningful vote” or on Tuesday on the second reading of the bill needed to implement his deal. Mr Johnson wrote on Saturday night to MPs and peers saying he would introduce the Withdrawal Agreement bill to implement his “great deal” next week and urged them to respect the will of the public to “get Brexit done”.
He claimed that it was MPs who were demanding the Brexit delay — in an attempt to absolve himself of any blame — adding: “It is quite possible that our friends in the European Union will reject parliament’s request for a further delay.” Although Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, suggested last week that the EU would not extend the Brexit process again, most member states say they would grant an extension if Mr Johnson asked for it. The prime minister had hoped MPs would back his new deal in a so-called “meaningful vote”. But instead MPs voted on Saturday afternoon by 322 to 306 to back a motion tabled by Oliver Letwin, former Tory cabinet minister, to put the crucial vote on hold.
The effect of the vote, which took place against the backdrop of a huge pro-EU demonstration in central London, was that Mr Johnson was now required by law to write a letter to the EU27 asking for an extension to Brexit beyond October 31. A defiant PM told MPs — on a rare Saturday Commons sitting — he was “not daunted or dismayed” and he would continue to pursue a departure by Halloween.
He is expected to force another vote on his Brexit deal next Tuesday, with hopes growing in Downing Street that parliamentarians, including Tory Eurosceptics and Labour MPs from Leave areas, will ultimately back him.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, said the government hoped to bring forward another meaningful vote on the deal on Monday but John Bercow, the Commons speaker, said he would reflect on whether to accept such a move.
The government’s defeat on the Letwin amendment blindsided Downing Street, which had been focused almost entirely on the main matter in hand: putting together a fragile cross-party coalition of at least 320 MPs to back the Brexit deal. “The frustrating thing is that we were edging towards a victory,” said one Tory aide. Analysis of the voting on the Letwin amendment suggested Downing Street might indeed have secured a narrow victory if there had been a vote on the deal. In the first Saturday sitting of the House of Commons since the Falklands War in 1982, 10 independent Conservative MPs voted for the Letwin amendment, most of whom had indicated they would support Mr Johnson’s deal.
The Democratic Unionist party, which has fallen out with Mr Johnson over the implications of his deal for Northern Ireland, also voted for the Letwin amendment despite frenetic last-minute lobbying by the PM ahead of the vote. Sir Oliver’s amendment stalled the momentum Mr Johnson had gained in Brussels last week, when the EU27 agreed a new Brexit deal that included the introduction of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Sir Oliver, who worked as David Cameron’s policy chief, devised his manoeuvre to avoid the possibility of an “accidental” no-deal exit on October 31. He feared that if MPs approved Mr Johnson’s deal on Saturday, there was a risk the UK might have fallen out of the EU without a deal by October 31 if the legislation needed to ratify the agreement had not been passed. Sir Oliver’s amendment said the meaningful vote required to approve the bill could only be given by MPs once the Withdrawal Agreement bill (WAB) had completed its passage through the Commons.
The apparently technical amendment is highly problematic for Mr Johnson. Not only does it force him into writing a humiliating letter to the EU asking to delay Brexit beyond October 31, it complicates his ability to secure Brexit on his terms. MPs can now attempt to amend the WAB during its passage through parliament, possibly by seeking to attach a “confirmatory referendum” to the deal, as demanded by the hundreds of thousands of protesters marching through London demanding a second referendum. Before the passage of the Letwin amendment, Mr Johnson could have threatened MPs that if they tried to change the terms of his Brexit deal he would simply pull the WAB and take Britain out of the EU on October 31 without a deal.
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