After three and a half years of torturous negotiations and political machinations, this was meant to be it.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson planned to put his new Brexit deal to a vote in Parliament, on a historic, emergency session that promised to finally bring clarity to the process.
But in the world of Brexit, nothing can be taken for granted. And sure enough, what was billed as Brexit’s “Super Saturday” turned into yet another round of can-kicking as lawmakers voted to delay a decision on Johnson’s deal.
Drama turned to farce when Johnson was forced by law to request an extension to the Brexit process from EU leaders — and simultaneously told them why they shouldn’t grant it.
What on earth happened?
The government’s intention at the beginning of Saturday was to hold a straightforward vote on Johnson’s deal, which was signed in Brussels on Thursday.
But its plans were scuppered when lawmakers passed an amendment crafted by former Conservative government minister Oliver Letwin, who has worked to prevent the UK from crashing out of the EU without a deal.
The amendment said Parliament would “withhold support” from Johnson’s Brexit plan until after the other bits of legislation required to implement it are passed.
Had Johnson won a vote on his plan on Saturday, he would have avoided the legal requirement to send a letter to the EU requesting an extension to the Brexit process until January 31.
But Letwin and his allies were concerned that, if the deal was approved and the provisions of the Benn Act fell away, a chaotic departure could still happen by accident on October 31 if, by then, lawmakers had failed to pass the complex set of legislation that’s required to enact the Brexit deal.
Downing Street is was livid at the vote. The failure to pass his deal on Saturday meant the Benn Act kicked in, requiring that extension to be requested.
Johnson had staked his political reputation on delivering Brexit by October 31, and now that’s in the balance.
So did Boris Johnson ask the EU for a delay?
Immediately after the vote, the Prime Minister seemed to imply that he would not. “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so,” he said. “Further delay will be bad for this country.”
But the law was clear: The government was required to send that letter. There was no ambiguity — the Benn Act even sets out the wording.
In a bad-tempered briefing with journalists after the vote, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman refused repeatedly to say whether Johnson would send the letter, or whether someone else in the government would send the letter, or whether the the government would flout the law and not send the letter at all. “Governments comply with the law,” was all the spokesman would say.
But in an extraordinary development later, it turned out that Johnson had sent not one but three letters. The first was written according to the wording set out by the Benn Act, requesting a Brexit delay until January 31. In a signal of how little importance Johnson attached to it, Downing Street sent a photocopy by email to the EU, and the Prime Minister didn’t even sign it.
A covering letter accompanied it, signed by a senior civil servant, who explained that the letter was being sent in order for the UK government to comply with the law.
Johnson sent a third letter to EU leaders, telling them that a delay would be “deeply corrosive” and that both sides should simply continue with their ratification processes, with a view to completing them by October 31, the original deadline.
Lawmakers who oppose a no-deal exit doubt very much that this complies with the spirit of the law, and are likely to challenge it at Scotland’s highest court, the Court of Session in Edinburgh, on Monday. That court has been the scene of many Brexit battles so far, led by a senior lawmaker with the Scottish National Party, Joanna Cherry.
What happens next in Parliament?
Next week is shaping up to very busy indeed. In the turmoil after the Saturday’s vote, the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, indicated that the government would bring forward another vote on the deal on Monday.
“In the light of today’s decision I should like to inform the house that Monday’s business will now be a debate on the motion relation to Section 13 -1B of the European Union Withdrawal Act 2018 and I shall make a further business statement on Monday,” he said.
Rees-Mogg was referring to a section of the Withdrawal Act that provides for a vote in the House of Commons on the result of a negotiated agreement with the European Union — a so-called “meaningful vote.” Theresa May had three of those, and lost all of them.
Ordinarily, the same provision can’t be voted on twice in the same parliamentary session. That convention scuppered May’s plans to hold a fourth vote on her withdrawal deal. The Speaker, John Bercow said he would rule on the matter on Monday.
Is it more or less likely that Johnson will get his Brexit deal passed?
The result of the Letwin amendment is that Johnson was robbed of a straight up-or-down vote on his Brexit deal. Had the Prime Minister been able to get the deal through the House of Commons, against all the odds, it would have been a moment of particularly sweet victory.
Downing Street aides are furious, since they believed that they had enough votes in the bag, even without the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, whom Johnson abandoned when they refused to sign up to his deal earlier this week.
All eyes turn to Monday’s vote, when the government will hope that it can demonstrate parliamentary backing for Johnson’s bill. But the fact is, to get Brexit done by October 31, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly promised, he must now get all the stages of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the House of Commons, the House of Lords and get it in front the Queen for Royal Assent. Only then will the provisions of the Benn Act fall away.
Since he threw out 21 members of his own party for voting in favour of the Benn Act, Johnson has a majority in Parliament of mninus 40. And the Democratic Unionist Party, which nominally props up his minority. government, is furious at being ditched.
As Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May found out to her cost, getting controversial legislation through the House of Commons when you don’t have a majority is notoriously difficult.