“Super Saturday” in the House of Commons wasn’t quite so super for U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson. In the extraordinary weekend session, he had hoped to secure parliamentary approval for the Brexit deal he had finalized in negotiations with the European Union last week, paving the way for an orderly withdrawal from the bloc at the end of this month.
MPs had other ideas, however, passing an amendment to withhold support for Johnson’s agreement until they can scrutinize and pass implementing legislation for it. This bears explaining: The process laid out in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 stipulates that an Act of Parliament (referred to as a “meaningful vote”) is required in order for the U.K. to ratify any given Brexit deal. Separate legislation, which MPs may amend, must then be enacted to enshrine the terms of the agreement into U.K. law, known as the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill.
Saturday’s amendment, which passed with 322 votes for to 306 against, means Parliament isn’t saying “no” to Johnson’s deal yet but won’t approve it until it has agreed on the details of the implementing legislation. The amendment was tabled by Oliver Letwin, one of 21 former members of Johnson’s Conservative Party from whom he “removed the whip” (i.e., kicked them out of the party) last month after they defied him by voting for the Benn Act, which required him to ask the E.U. for another Brexit extension if Parliament had not passed a deal by October 19.
In accordance with that law, Johnson, who had vowed not to seek another extension, wrote to E.U. leaders late Saturday formally requesting a delay until the end of January. Johnson sent that letter, unsigned, along with a second, personal letter to E.U. president Donald Tusk, in which he indicated that his government did not really want an extension and stressed, “I remain confident that we will complete the process by 31 October.”
The fact that Johnson did not sign the formal communiqué requesting the extension has no bearing on its legal force, but few failed to notice the contrast between the letter that bore his signature and the one that did not. Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s shadow Brexit secretary, described the move as “childlike” in comments on Sunday. The staunchly anti-Brexit Scottish National Party accused the prime minister of trying to “frustrate” the Benn Act with his second letter — something he told Scotland’s highest court last month he wouldn’t do. The Court of Session will convene today in Edinburgh to consider whether the letter constituted a breach of that promise.
In London, meanwhile, Johnson is seeking another vote on his deal today in the House of Commons. The government has the votes to pass the deal, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday, and still expects to get it through Parliament this week and enact it before the end of the month. Johnson can’t force the House to hold another meaningful vote on the deal, however; Commons Speaker John Bercow, who had frustrated former prime minister Theresa May with his refusal to allow additional votes on her Brexit plan after it had failed three times, may simply not allow it. MPs may also amend it again, as they did Saturday, to withhold support until they’ve hashed out the details.
In any case, Johnson must put the withdrawal agreement bill (the implementing legislation) before Parliament this week and assemble a majority for it in order to put his Brexit deal into action. The opposition suspects that Johnson is hoping to pass a meaningful vote so that he can withdraw his request for a delay, fulfilling his promise not to extend the deadline but creating a new risk of a no-deal Brexit next Thursday if the bill does not pass.
The prime minister is hoping to rush through this process in a matter of days, but again, MPs have other ideas. Labour is working to build a cross-party coalition around a series of amendments that would soften the Brexit deal (such as by keeping the U.K. in a customs union with the E.U.), prevent the U.K. from exiting on no-deal terms at the end of the transition period, or even require a second referendum. Labour leaders have rejected the deal, saying it strips away protections for workers and the environment and paves the way for a Tory orgy of deregulation. To court vulnerable Labour MPs with pro-Brexit constituencies, Johnson had offered some pledges on Friday to protect workers’ rights, but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed these as “empty promises.”
Some of Labour’s amendments might be so anathema to Johnson’s government that it pulls the bill if they are passed — which may indeed be an intentional part of Labour’s political strategy. If the bill is withdrawn or voted down, the E.U. leaders will have to decide whether to grant another extension. In that case, Johnson would be rooting for them to refuse, forcing Parliament to choose between his deal and no deal. In the more likely event that the deadline is extended, Johnson will seek to call a general election, which requires a two-thirds vote in the House of Commons and which the opposition might use as leverage to force a second referendum or a vote of no confidence in his government.
Three years into this Brexit drama, the British public remains deeply divided on the question of E.U. membership. Hundreds of thousands of anti-Brexit demonstrators (up to a million, according to organizers) assembled in central London on Saturday to express their rejection of Johnson’s deal and advocate for a second referendum. A snap poll from YouGov found that 30 percent of U.K. voters approve of Johnson’s deal, 17 percent would prefer no deal, and 38 percent would rather remain, with a substantial 15 percent unsure. Other polls asking how Britons would vote in a second Brexit referendum have consistently suggested a narrow victory for Remain over the past year, but mainly illustrate a lack of public consensus one way or the other.
Pro-Brexit politicians argue that the public is tired of arguing about this and that it’s time to carry out the orders a narrow majority voted for in 2016. Anti-Brexit politicians argue that voters are entitled to another referendum, as know they now what Brexit will actually entail. Unfortunately, there is no possible course of action here that won’t upset a substantial segment of the voting public. Small wonder, then, that the U.K.’s political institutions have proved so reluctant to act. Even with a deadline looming and a deal on the table, this week might not change that.