Boris Johnson always had a mountain to climb if he wanted to get Brexit done before the end of this month. He’s taken a few short steps up the foothills, but is short on supplies with a considerable climb left.
On Tuesday night, the UK Prime Minister could take heart from the fact that he achieved something that eluded his predecessor Theresa May, when, for the first time in this tortuous process, Parliament finally declared itself in favor of something related to Brexit.
It was not quite the “meaningful vote” on the substance of his deal that Johnson craved — that fell by the wayside on Saturday — but it was a positive result nonetheless.
Technically, Members of Parliament (MPs) agreed to advance Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the House of Commons. The Prime Minister won by a pretty comfortable margin of 30 — no small thing for a government with a majority of minus 40.
But the celebrations were short lived. Just a few minutes later, lawmakers defied Johnson in a second vote when they rejected his plans for an accelerated legislative timetable, throwing a big pile of rocks into his road.
Johnson, having put the legislation on pause, now has just over a week to review his options. He must decide on how to proceed down a treacherous path, with enemies on all sides, if he’s to deliver on his promise to get Brexit done by October 31.
One possibility would be to take on Parliament’s objections to the timetable. Many MPs were horrified at the government’s plan to ram through in just three days the most important piece of legislation in British peacetime history. The government could explore ways in which they could be placated.
Immediately after the second vote, opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn said that if Johnson wanted to work on a cross-party basis and develop to a new timetable for the process, he’s all ears. That could be a route to a compromise, should Downing Street be minded to take it.
In theory, if Johnson is willing to work with opposition parties, he could still get the legislation passed by October 31. But that looks like very wishful thinking — the timetable is still very tight, and there remains some considerable opposition in parliament to his deal. Just because lawmakers voted for it at this early stage, doesn’t mean they would approve it at the final hurdle.
Then there’s the question of the EU response. If European leaders aren’t convinced that Johnson can get a deal through all of its parliamentary stages by October 31, they must make a decision: Grant the UK a Brexit extension so it can get its house in order, or let the deadline expire and allow the UK fall out with no formal deal.
Donald Tusk, President of the EU Council, said on Tuesday evening that he would recommend member states approve the extension that Johnson was forced by law to request at the weekend. Tusk even suggested the decision could be taken by letter, without the need for a formal summit, making the process a lot quicker.
There were signs that not all member states would acquiesce. French diplomatic sources are already sounding alarm bells. “At the end of the week we will see if a purely technical extension of a few days is necessary, so that the British Parliament can finish this parliamentary procedure,” once French diplomat said. “But outside these circumstances, an extension intended to buy time or to discuss the agreement again is excluded.”
If that extension is granted, then Johnson has two options. He can try to push ahead with passing his deal through parliament on a slightly elongated timetable, knowing that he has the safety net of extra time from the EU. Or he could decide that blowing through the October 31 deadline — which he once suggested would be worse than being dead in a ditch — is not a price worth paying. In that scenario, he would give up on the legislation completely and seek a general election instead.
Both options carry risk. If he takes the route of parliamentary compromise, that might cement in the eyes of the public Johnson as a man doing everything possible to deliver on his promise. If he pulls it off and somehow gets the deal through by the end of the month, then he can start doing cartwheels around Westminster and prepare for an election that most pundits agree he’d win. If he fails, he risks looking like a failure, as the deadline expires and the UK drifts into the third Brexit extension.
If he opts for to go for an election straight away, it would be an immediate and stark admission that Brexit isn’t going to happen by October, breaking that solemn promise to the people. But he could still legitimately blame it on his opponents. And of course, whatever the polls say now, there’s no guarantee that he would win it.The patience of the British public would be sorely tested, and there’s no predicting how they would react.
It’s going to be a very tense few days in Brexit Britain. Only a fool would try and accurately predict what will actually happen. Just like a bag of Halloween treats, that October 31 deadline could be gone in a flash.