We’re in the Brexit endgame — or so Boris Johnson hopes.
By Thursday evening, the British Prime Minister intends to have done the seemingly impossible and passed a Brexit deal.
But whether he is able to do that depends on a series of crucial votes by lawmakers on his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB).
Johnson is hoping to push the entirety of the WAB through Parliament this week, enabling him to keep to his pledge of taking Britain out of the EU before November.
The bill is required to convert the pact agreed by the UK and the EU into British law.
And an amendment passed in Parliament on Saturday makes it more significant. Now, rather than approving the agreement via a one-off “meaningful vote,” the whole of the bill must be signed off before the UK can leave the EU.
But the government’s efforts to force it through in three days are proving controversial, and the bill could be picked apart and reshaped by lawmakers even if it succeeds in its initial vote on Tuesday.
You can read the whole 115-page bill online, if you want to.
But since you may not want to — it comes to 435 pages with its associated memos and notes — here’s a brief explainer of what exactly the WAB says, and why it’s so significant.
What is the WAB?
Johnson’s government reached a withdrawal agreement with the EU last week, setting out what Brexit will look like.
The deal looked similar to the one previously negotiated by his predecessor Theresa May, with one big difference: Johnson’s pact strips out May’s hated Northern Irish backstop mechanism for a customs border in the Irish sea — something May said she would never agree to.
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill required to implement it is a hefty document, covering various areas of a post-Brexit UK including provisions for EU citizens, workers’ rights, the environment, and customs arrangements.
The whole thing runs to 115 pages. Then, when you’re finished that, there’s another five related documents — including a 104-page memorandum, 122 pages of explanatory notes, a 69-page impact assessment, another 10-page memo, and 15 pages of opinion from the Regulatory Policy Committee.
It would take you hours to sift through the whole text, and the government only published the bill on Monday evening — providing Westminster with plenty of bedtime reading.
Why is the timetable controversial?
Johnson is desperate to stick to his promise that the UK will leave the EU on October 31, but he can only achieve that with a rapidly accelerated timetable.
So Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, unveiled a three-day schedule for debates and votes on the bill, hoping it can be done and dusted by Thursday.
But that timeframe for such a lengthy and significant bill is causing anger on the opposition backbenches.
“Issues like this need to be properly debated not rushed through. Government is storing up very serious future problems by the way it is trying to implement this,” Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted.
She called on the government to add extra days, noting the importance and complexities of issues such as EU citizens and their legal claims to citizenship rights.
Ken Clarke, a former Conservative minister turned independent whose vote could be crucial, added: “If the Government is for some reason insistent on dashing for this completely silly and irrelevant date which it keeps staking its fate on then give some proper time for debate. Two-and-a-bit days of ordinary parliamentary hours is plainly quite insufficient.”
The last big EU upheaval, the Lisbon Treaty, was pored over in 25 sittings over five months in London.
The 1993 Maastricht Treaty founding the European Union was also subject to months of torturous nitpicking in Westminster.
So it’s optimistic for Johnson to argue that the issue of leaving the EU can be sorted in 72 hours.
The Labour Party is arguing that Johnson is running from proper parliamentary scrutiny. Its official position is to vote down both the bill and his timetable, but rebel MPs within the party could swing the votes towards Johnson.
Will Johnson get the votes?
It’s looking like the Prime Minister could squeak the WAB through Parliament on Tuesday evening.
A CNN analysis showed that he could win by around three to five votes, with just enough Labour rebels and independents joining his side.
But the vote on the government’s timetable, which will come immediately afterwards on Tuesday, could be tighter.
Discussions will be ongoing in Westminster over the course of the day about whether to grant the government a three-day window to get all aspects of the bill through.
If it loses the timetable vote, it could have to rely on the EU granting the extension that Johnson asked for but didn’t want.
Alternatively, the Prime Minister could abandon the legislation altogether and seek a general election in an effort to resolve the mess.