In quick succession on Tuesday, the House of Commons delivered U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson his first real victory and his latest humiliating defeat on Brexit, laying the groundwork for another extension of the Brexit deadline and possibly a general election before the end of the year.
Johnson unveiled the deal he had negotiated with the European Union last week; in an extraordinary weekend session on Saturday, Parliament declined to approve it outright, instead passing an amendment to withhold support until lawmakers had a chance to scrutinize and amend the bill enshrining the deal into law. He sought another up-or-down vote on Monday but was rebuffed by Commons Speaker John Bercow, who has proven a real stickler for not letting prime ministers keep holding votes on their Brexit deals until they get a result they like. Prevented from holding another meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement, Johnson then presented MPs with the implementing legislation.
Tuesday’s session in the House of Commons featured two critical votes.
First, lawmakers held a “second reading” debate and vote on the withdrawal agreement bill. In the Westminster process, a second reading is MPs’ first opportunity to debate a bill and hold a vote on whether the Commons supports it in principle — this is before debating specifics of the bill or proposing amendments. Johnson’s bill passed the second reading with 329 votes to 299, marking the first time a majority has voted for any Brexit deal. While this was a noteworthy moment in the history of Brexit, it meant only that lawmakers would allow it to proceed to the next stage in the parliamentary process.
Johnson’s hopes of getting his deal through Parliament this week were dashed just 20 minutes later, when MPs voted 322-308 against the government’s “program motion,” an act the U.K. government can propose to fast-track a bill through Parliament. The program motion envisioned MPs debating and holding a final vote on the 115-page withdrawal agreement in just three days: a timetable meant to get the bill passed in time to meet the October 31 deadline for Brexit, which Johnson had pledged not to extend. The prime minister was forced to ask E.U. leaders for an extension on Saturday after MPs declined to approve his deal up-front, in accordance with legislation passed last month that required him to do so if Parliament had not agreed on a deal by October 19.
The key players in Tuesday’s votes were the independent MPs Johnson expelled from the Conservative Party last month when they supported that bill. All 285 card-carrying Tories in the House of Commons voted in favor of both the second reading and the program motion, which one commentator remarked was no mean feat, considering the still-significant divisions within the party between its right flank of hard-line Brexiteers and more moderate MPs concerned with the impact of a hard Brexit on the British economy. On the other hand, Johnson might have had an easier time cajoling the independent ex-Tories into supporting his program motion had he not kicked them out of the party.
For the independents who were instrumental in blocking the motion, their main concern was that the bill does not clearly give Parliament the power to prevent a backdoor no-deal Brexit from happening at the end of the 14-month transition period if the government and the E.U. have failed to reach a permanent trade agreement by that time. Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told MPs just before the vote that the bill would allow “Parliament to have its say on the merits of an extension period,” but this was not enough to convince independents to back the motion.
Another key player in Johnson’s ultimate defeat was the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish right-wing party that backs up his minority Tory government. The DUP refused to support Johnson’s deal because it proposes to solve the long-standing Irish border problem by creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and Britain, which they consider unacceptable. The DUP’s rejection proved fatal to Johnson’s plans on Saturday and again on Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, Johnson had warned MPs that if they forced him to get another three-month extension from Brussels, he would pull the bill and call an early election before the end of the year. After losing the program motion vote, Johnson did not withdraw the bill, but said he would set it aside for the time being, resume discussions with the E.U. about an extension, and step up contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit at the end of the month. (In a Guardian op-ed, one anonymous civil servant working on those preparations admitted that “much of this … shtick is just for show,” meant to scare MPs into holding a hasty vote on Johnson’s deal so he can fulfill his political pledge not to delay Brexit.)
With Parliament not tackling the Brexit bill this week, the odds of a delay now look close to certain. European Council President Donald Tusk broadcast on Twitter after Tuesday’s votes that he would recommend that the E.U. member states accept the U.K.’s request for an extension. That extension would be for three months, until the end of January, possibly with the potential for the U.K. to withdraw earlier if Parliament votes in favor of the deal in November or December.
10 Downing Street is now signaling that it intends to press for a general election; indeed, it is already testing out its campaign platform. As an anonymous government source put it to the press: “If parliament’s delay is agreed by Brussels, then the only way the country can move on is with an election. This parliament is broken. The public will have to choose whether they want to get Brexit done with Boris or whether they want to spend 2020 having two referendums on Brexit and Scotland with Corbyn.”
What will come of an election is anyone’s guess. The Conservatives are polling considerably better than the opposition Labour Party at the moment, but neither comes close to outright majority support, while smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats and the recently formed Brexit Party are polling in the teens. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is deeply unpopular, but more voters have negative than positive views of Johnson as well. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell hinted in a recent interview that Corbyn would probably step down if Labour lost the next election, but his party might not even let him get that far. With a likely loss to Boris Johnson’s Tories staring them in the face, Labourites may feel a sudden need for someone more charismatic and less controversial as the face of their operation.
Johnson’s strategy may also be to call a general election and then try to get his deal through before voters go to the polls, so he can campaign on having gotten Brexit done. That will put Labour MPs from pro-leave constituencies in a real bind: hand Johnson a political victory and vote for a deal they don’t truly support, or let Johnson inveigh against Labour obstruction and risk angering their own voters? Whatever happens, the next few months will be memorable ones in the annals of U.K. politics.