foreign interests

Boris Johnson’s Make-or-Break Saturday Session in Parliament

Will they or won’t they? Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The U.K. and the European Union announced on Thursday that they had reached a new deal on Brexit that would allow the U.K. to exit the union on schedule at the end of this month, pending approval by the U.K. Parliament. After several days of negotiations in Brussels that continued into the wee hours of Thursday morning, British and European officials reached an agreement the E.U. member states could live with that addresses some of the U.K.’s concerns about sovereignty and independence in areas of trade and regulation.

Now comes the hard part. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has pledged not to seek another extension of the October 31 Brexit deadline, must find a majority for this agreement in a hostile Parliament where he has alienated segments of his own party, where the opposition is champing at the bit for a chance to take him down in a new election, and which passed a law last month that would force him to request the extension he is committed to avoiding unless they approve a deal by Saturday. Johnson tried to get E.U. leaders to rule out another extension, which would put more pressure on Parliament to pass his deal, but they were not crazy enough to do so.

Announcing the deal in Brussels on Thursday, Johnson expressed confidence that the House of Commons would pass it, but this will be an uphill battle. Parliament will convene on Saturday to vote on it, which will be only the fourth Saturday session in 80 years and the first since the Falkland Islands conflict in 1982. Johnson is seeking an up-or-down vote on Saturday to either reject or (he hopes) accept the deal, but opposition lawmakers are floating amendments, the most important of which would mandate a second nationwide referendum on Johnson’s deal before it can be implemented.

What’s in the deal?

Johnson’s Brexit deal differs in several key respects from the one his predecessor Theresa May worked out with the E.U. last year, but failed to sell to Parliament on multiple occasions, leading to her resignation as head of the Conservative Party and Johnson replacing her. Most of the differences are aimed at placating right-wing proponents of a “hard Brexit,” who had voted against May’s plan because they felt it did not sufficiently decouple the U.K. from E.U.

For example, May had agreed to a “level playing field,” essentially pledging not to water down the U.K.’s consumer safety, environmental, or labor regulations so as to give U.K. businesses a leg up over European ones by substantially reducing their costs. May’s deal would have seen the U.K. commit to matching E.U. standards in many areas going forward, allowing the country to quickly work out a free trade agreement with the bloc. Johnson’s version strikes the level playing field language from the binding agreement and only mentions it in the nonbinding Political Declaration.

This gives Johnson’s administration more flexibility to loosen regulations and negotiate its own trade deals outside the E.U., but means no quick and easy free trade agreement with the E.U. Erecting new trade barriers between the U.K. and the rest of Europe will be needlessly harmful to its economy, British business groups and economists have pointed out, but Johnson claims he will make up these losses and then some, primarily through a “magnificent” Anglo-American trade deal, courtesy of his buddy Donald Trump.

Johnson handles the Irish border problem — the thorniest issue throughout the past three years of Brexit negotiations — differently than his predecessor Theresa May tried to. May’s deal included a backstop arrangement in case the parties failed to work out a permanent trade agreement by 2021, which would keep the U.K. in the E.U. customs union and maintain a mostly customs-free border by having Northern Ireland continue to abide by some of the E.U.’s single-market regulations. Brexit proponents rejected this plan, arguing that remaining in the customs union and applying the backstop would leave the U.K. subject to E.U. trade policy indefinitely.

Johnson’s deal, by contrast, removes the U.K. from the customs union entirely, but ends up putting many of the same burdens on Northern Ireland as May’s did. It will have to abide by E.U. tariff rules and single-market regulations in agriculture and manufacturing. To accomplish this while removing the U.K. from the customs union, Johnson is effectively creating a customs border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and Britain, smoothed over with a system of rebates and exemptions. These rules will take effect at the end of a transition period in 2020, and Northern Irish lawmakers would get to vote on whether to keep applying the E.U. rules every four years starting in 2024. This feature eliminates one of the problems with May’s backstop: that it included no set end date or process by which the U.K. could decide to stop enforcing it.

Will the deal pass?

Johnson’s confidence notwithstanding, there’s plenty for his opponents not to like in this deal. The opposition Labour Party is making hay out of the fact that Johnson did away with the “level playing field,” which they see as a first step toward letting the pro-business Tories run roughshod over worker and environmental protections. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called Johnson’s deal “even worse” than May’s and saying his party would push for it to be put to the public in a second referendum. Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, warned in a Twitter thread criticizing the deal that it “paves the way for a decade of deregulation” and “gives Johnson licence to slash workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protections.”

The far right is not pleased with the deal, either. English nationalist Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party (which holds no seats in Parliament) blasted the “commitment to regulatory alignment” in the deal, which, although much weaker than what May had proposed, still renders it “not Brexit” in Farage’s eyes. Of course, Farage and those in his hard-line camp have been pushing for a no-deal Brexit in which the U.K. is completely and totally severed from the E.U. all at once, with no regard for the damage this would do to the economy or social stability.

For those hard Brexiteers who are actually seated in Parliament (and not complete no-deal wingnuts), however, the deal may be good enough — or at least, as good as it gets for them. Johnson’s confidence that his deal will pass Parliament on Saturday is based largely in the fact that the European Research Group, a faction of hard-line Eurosceptic MPs within the Conservative party, has signaled that it will consider voting for it, pending the resolution of a few remaining concerns. Of course, recent history suggests that those lingering concerns could turn out to be insurmountable obstacles.

The Northern Irish DUP has said its MPs won’t vote for the deal because of the way it handles the Irish border problem, which they still don’t like. The DUP has consistently ruled out any Brexit deal that creates a separate set of customs rules for Northern Ireland relative to the rest of the U.K., requires that country to remain in the E.U. customs union, creates a customs border between it and the rest of the U.K., or creates a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. They rejected May’s deal for violating the first and second of these rules, and now appear poised to reject Johnson’s for violating the third. Of course, a deal that satisfies all of the DUP’s conditions has been impossible all along, which is why May was foolish to ever count on the party’s support in shepherding her deal through the House of Commons.

Fortunately for Johnson, he doesn’t need the DUP to get his deal passed on Saturday. Unfortunately, he still needs a lot of other MPs who aren’t especially enthusiastic about him or the deal to get onboard.

The parliamentary math isn’t on his side. There are 639 voting members in the House of Commons (650 in total, minus the speaker and his three deputies, who don’t vote, and seven MPs of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, who never take their seats), so Johnson needs a flat majority of 320 to pass his deal. There are 288 Conservatives, most of whom will support the deal (particularly if the ERG decides it’s acceptable); some of the 21 ex-Tories whom Johnson expelled from the party for voting against him last month will likely take this chance to come back into the fold. Most of Labour’s 244 MPs will vote against, as will the DUP, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and other small opposition parties, accounting for another 83 seats altogether.

That leaves very little wiggle room for Johnson to get to 320: He needs all the Tories, plus most of the independents and perhaps a handful of Labour MPs as well. If Corbyn whips his party into voting against the deal unanimously and the DUP remains opposed, Johnson will need the votes of nearly every independent MP in the House. With less than two weeks left until doomsday, he is counting on lawmakers’ fear of either another extension or a no-deal Brexit to get them in line. Will it be enough? We’ll find out on Saturday.

Boris Johnson’s Make-or-Break Saturday Session in Parliament