UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered another bruising setback on Saturday as UK lawmakers withheld approval of his Brexit deal, just as he appeared on the brink of an extraordinary political triumph.
In a day of intense political drama in London, MPs voted to delay ratification of the deal until Parliament has passed the complex set of legislation required to enact it.
By law, Johnson must now ask the European Union for an extension to the Brexit process until the end of January, an outcome he has repeatedly pledged to avoid since he became Prime Minister in July.
But, in comments that prompted uproar in the House of Commons, Johnson appeared to suggest he might not comply with the law which mandates him to formally request a Brexit delay by 11 p.m. local time (6 p.m. ET) Saturday. “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so,” he said. “Further delay will be bad for this country.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, blasted Johnson from across the floor of the House of Commons. “The Prime Minister must now comply with the law,” he said. “He can no longer use the threat of a no-deal crash-out to blackmail MPs to support his sellout deal.”
Moment of victory denied
Government aides were furious at the result, as it denied Johnson the chance to declare a Brexit victory on Saturday. After two days of arm-twisting since Johnson returned with a new deal from Brussels, Downing Street believed it had secured the numbers required to pass it, albeit by a razor-thin margin.
Johnson’s nemesis was former Conservative government minister Oliver Letwin, who proposed the amendment that delayed Parliament’s approval. He said it was an “insurance policy” to ensure the UK would not “crash out” of the European Union without a deal on October 31.
Under legislation known as the Benn Act, designed to avoid a no-deal Brexit, the UK government was required to send a letter to the EU requesting an extension to the Brexit process until January 31, if a deal was was not ratified by the end of Saturday.
Those provisions would have fallen away if Johnson had succeeded in getting his deal through the House of Commons. But Letwin and his allies were concerned that a no-deal Brexit could still happen by accident at the end of October if, by then, lawmakers had failed to pass the complex set of legislation required to enact the departure deal.
In the end, the Letwin amendment passed by 322 votes to 306. In a twist of political fate, the outcome was decided by the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland group that nominally props up Johnson’s minority government in the House of Commons.
The DUP was deeply unhappy with terms of Johnson’s deal, under which Northern Ireland effectively remains in the EU customs union, putting the province in a different economic arrangement to the rest of the UK. Its MPs were particularly furious that Johnson had cast them aside, traveling to Brussels on Thursday to sign his Brexit deal with EU leaders without securing their support.
“We are cut off from the country to which we belong,” said Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, in an impassioned speech in the House of Commons.
Johnson’s plea to lawmakers
In the first weekend sitting of Parliament for 37 years, Johnson had implored MPs from all sides of the House of Commons to back his Brexit deal and support a “shared sense of destiny.”
He received notable backing from his predecessor, Theresa May, who as Prime Minister had refused to accept many of the provisions related to Northern Ireland now agreed by Johnson. “If you want to deliver Brexit, if you want to keep faith with the British people, if you want the country to move forward, then vote for the deal today,” she said.
In the end, May’s support was not enough. “Alas, the opportunity to have a meaningful vote has effectively been passed up,” an angry Johnson told lawmakers after the Letwin amendment was passed. “The meaningful vote has been voided of meaning.”
The day dubbed as “Super Saturday” had turned into something of an anti-climax. But Johnson said the government would press on with its plans to put legislation to enact the withdrawal agreement before Parliament next week. “The best thing for the UK and for the whole of Europe is for us to leave with this new deal on October 31,” he said.
What happens next?
Speaking to political journalists shortly after the vote, Johnson’s spokesperson repeatedly refused to say whether Johnson would send the required letter to the EU, saying only that “governments comply with the law.”
That stance allows some wriggle room. Johnson — or an official in his government — could request the extension, but not engage with the EU any further on it. The Prime Minister could also send another letter stating that government policy is to leave the EU on October 31.
Meanwhile Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, indicated that the government would bring forward another vote on Johnson’s Brexit deal on Monday. Further details would be given then, he said.
Ordinarily, the same provision can’t be voted on twice in a parliamentary session. That convention scuppered ex-Prime Minister May’s plans to hold repeated votes on her withdrawal deal. Speaker of the House John Bercow said he would rule on the matter Monday.
While lawmakers were debating and voting in Parliament, up to 1 million protesters marched through central London to call for a second Brexit referendum, according to protest organisers.
In a statement, the People’s Vote march estimated the amount of attendees by the number of coaches bringing people to the demonstrations, leaflets distributed publicizing the march and online sign-ups to the event which have exceeded previous events. Authorities have not given estimates of crowd sizes.