Slumping Johnson could still win Brexit fight

  • Key player: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photograph by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

    Key player: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photograph by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

  • Catherine Haddon

    Catherine Haddon


The House of Commons still doesn’t want to do what Boris Johnson wants it to do. But after the Prime Minister lost yet another vote on how Britain should leave the European Union — this time in a rare Saturday session — the fight is far from settled. Brexit politics move quickly, even if Brexit itself doesn’t.

Over the next few days, members of Parliament will be faced with a choice between three agendas. Although many MPs support more than one of them, some big divides remain. It is not at all clear who will come out on top.

The first effort will be led by the Prime Minister. Yesterday, he tried again to get a vote passed in the Commons that shows support for his deal. Parliament voted for an amendment on Saturday that scuppered the vote on his deal, but Johnson will think that he came close to getting it passed even so: that amendment was pushed by one of the Prime Minister’s former Conservative colleagues — one who was removed from the party after voting against Johnson earlier — Oliver Letwin, who said he would support the deal, but not until the Government had ensured that Britain would not leave the EU without a deal.

The Government may think that it is close enough to getting approval for the deal — especially now that it has been forced, extremely reluctantly, into asking for another extension of negotiations with the EU beyond October 31. If Johnson does get approval for the deal this week, he can move to put it into law and attempt to leave the EU on that date as he has repeatedly promised.

But he does face one big hurdle: because a vote was passed Saturday, any new vote will fall foul of the Commons rule that motions can’t continue to be brought back to the House. Johnson will need a favourable ruling by House Speaker John Bercow, or else he’ll have to find some way to argue that it is a different vote. If that doesn’t work, he might go straight to trying to introduce legislation for his deal and not have the initial approval vote.

The second effort will be led by those who voted for the amendment delaying the vote on Johnson’s proposal — a coalition of former Conservatives kicked out of the party by Johnson, opposition parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and the Democratic Unionist Party, Johnson’s erstwhile parliamentary supporters, which doesn’t support his deal because it would treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of Britain.

The opponents want an insurance policy in place to secure an extension on the deadline to leave Europe and prevent Britain from leaving without a deal at the end of the month. Saturday’s vote was a victory for them. The amendment said that the Government would have met only Parliament’s demands for approving the deal when MPs had put it into legislation. They were concerned that MPs could vote for the deal on Saturday but reject the subsequent legislation, which would mean Britain would still leave the EU without a deal. Some MPs will try to secure further guarantees to ensure that the United Kingdom can still avoid a no-deal exit even if Johnson’s deal fails during its legislative passage.

That extension is still not in place. The Prime Minister has now written to the EU, as compelled by law, to request an extension — but he has said he will not “negotiate” one. That seems to suggest that although he has sent the letter, he won’t press the EU on the issue.

However, EU leaders would probably have delayed their response anyway. They will want to know what purpose the extension is meant to serve. If MPs are about to approve a deal, then it might be to allow the legislation to be passed. This would require a fairly short extension. If it is to do something else — like hold another referendum or a General Election — then that would take a much longer extension. The Benn Act, which requires Johnson to request the extension, calls for it to last until January 31. But European leaders, who will be hugely frustrated by Saturday’s events, will want some guarantees. Expect them to wait and see what happens in the next couple of days in Parliament before they issue a formal response.

The third effort will be made by those MPs who want to secure a new referendum. This group includes some of those who voted for the amendment on Saturday to delay the vote on the deal — and who would have voted against the deal if it had come up. Through tabling amendments, they will attempt to use any of the votes coming up to get MPs a vote on whether to hold a second referendum. In recent days, there has been more movement in Parliament towards a referendum, even among those who want the deal but acknowledge that it might be passed only if it comes with the guarantee of a confirmatory public vote. If they manage to change the legislation for Johnson’s deal, that would mean the United Kingdom could leave the EU only on his terms if he won a second referendum.

What seems to have moved off the agenda, at least for the next couple of days, is the prospect of a General Election — but that could still quickly come back. If Johnson’s deal had failed, rather than just been delayed, then the Prime Minister might have requested the extension from the EU but then put pressure on the Labour opposition to vote for an election early next week. If his deal fails next week, that could still happen. Labour may well want to wait until the October 31 deadline has passed, but if Johnson can’t get support for his deal, the Government may look to other parties, such as the Scottish National Party, and get a very short Bill through that allows an election.

And as the Government and Parliament work out how to respond to the latest Brexit developments, the Johnson government has still not passed its Queen’s Speech — the big set-piece vote in which the Government’s legislative plans for the year ahead are laid out. Normally, governments must secure Parliament’s backing for their legislative plans. The speech has been given, but it is still to be voted on and the Government could still lose the vote. That would be constitutionally extraordinary: The last time a government was defeated on a monarch’s speech was in 1924. But without an election or a viable alternative government, Johnson is likely to continue in office no matter what.

If the Labour opposition objects to this state of affairs, it could try to oust the Prime Minister by calling a vote of no confidence in Parliament. But they will do so only if they think they have enough support to form a government themselves — and, at the moment, they don’t. Once a Brexit extension is in place, though, Labour could try to trigger a General Election and take Brexit out of the hands of Johnson’s government once again.

The latest twist to the Brexit drama was not in Johnson’s script. But the drama is still being written. And it doesn’t yet look like any of the players know how it will end.

Catherine Haddon is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government

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Published Oct 22, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 22, 2019 at 7:37 am)

Slumping Johnson could still win Brexit fight

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