There was very nearly a bedtime Brexit tale that went something like this: And so, finally, the porridge was just right, Parliament ate up Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and then, satisfied, went to bed. The end.
Of course, lawmakers didn’t eat up and this interminable story isn’t over. Saturday’s parliamentary session instead served up another helping of thin gruel to those British voters who just want the whole thing resolved. Rather than the prime minister getting a vote on his 11th-hour agreement with Brussels, one he may possibly have won, he could only watch as lawmakers passed an amendment giving them more time to scrutinize the deal before passing it.
Johnson might yet win the day; he was planning another push Monday to get Parliament to sign off on the principle of his EU agreement. Yet one can hardly begrudge the House of Commons for wanting a closer look at legislation that will inflict such profound and historic changes on the UK.
At the same time, the delay meant Johnson by law had to write to the EU to ask for a three-month extension to Britain’s Oct. 31 official departure date, a demand that was enforced by Parliament if he couldn’t get its backing by Oct. 19. This was intended to build stronger defenses against Britain crashing out of the EU without an agreement.
Johnson sent the required letter to the EU without his signature. At the same time, he sent a signed letter to explain his position that another delay would be a mistake.
There was a danger that if Johnson’s deal had passed but the follow-up legislation was rejected, a no-deal Brexit would have happened by default on Halloween. Taking that unhappy prospect off the table would be a noble and useful thing in itself.
The amendment from the independent, formerly Conservative, lawmaker Oliver Letwin said the Johnson deal could be approved only if the implementing legislation -- called the Withdrawal Agreement Bill -- passes too. Letwin supports the Johnson deal and wasn’t trying to derail it (even if many of the amendment’s backers were); but given this government’s willingness to gamble with a no-deal exit, and the fact that a number of Conservative members of Parliament would be happy with that outcome, he wasn’t taking any chances.
While implementing legislation usually takes between 10 and 40 days, it might be done more quickly this time if there’s political support. It will also need agreement from the House of Lords, where the government doesn’t control the timetable. Johnson said he would press on with a potential “meaningful vote” on Monday and it’s possible the Withdrawal Agreement Bill could be introduced as early as Tuesday. But it will be up to the House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, who has so often spoiled the government’s attempts to force through Brexit, to rule on what’s permissible.
Saturday’s setback certainly doesn’t kill Johnson’s deal. It had much more support than his predecessor Theresa May’s attempt, and more than the alternative options of a no-deal Brexit, revoking Brexit altogether or a second referendum. It also, crucially, has momentum.
Johnson’s gamble was that enough lawmakers could be shooed onto the bandwagon Saturday before the real forensics began. That this didn’t happen is in large part because his slash-and-burn strategy -- where he first threatened a no-deal exit and then offered once unthinkable concessions to Brussels to get a deal over the line -- has also undermined trust. The deal conjured success by pulling the rug out from under Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, a key Conservative ally.
Whereas Johnson, May and many Tory Brexiters had sworn never to support an arrangement that put a customs border between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland, the new deal effectively does that. The DUP are furious about something that ties Northern Ireland closer to the EU and separates it from the rest of the UK, an affront that was made worse by the party’s failure to secure a veto on the new arrangements.
If Johnson had kept the support of the DUP, the Letwin amendment wouldn’t have passed on Saturday, and he will no doubt be seeking ways to bring Arlene Foster’s party back into the tent.
While Johnson vowed after Saturday’s defeat not to “negotiate” an extension with the EU, the Benn Act (named after the Labour MP who introduced it) requires the prime minister to now seek an extension whether he wants to or not. Assuming he sends the letter, and avoids breaking the law, the EU will almost certainly grant an extension.
The government will surely try to use the legislative process to woo holdout MPs with concessions, although opponents will try to attach amendments, such as a confirmatory referendum to put any agreed deal back to the British public. Johnson’s last-minute breakthrough with Brussels blindsided both the opposition Labour Party, whose own Brexit policy is a shambles, and the centrist Liberal Democrats, which wants to cancel Brexit. They will relish any chance to make sweeping changes as the legislation goes through Parliament.
The EU may offer Johnson a conditional extension to the Oct. 31 date, which would come into force only if he fails to get the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through Parliament by then. If he can’t manage it, an extension looks inevitable, followed by either a general election or possibly another referendum to try to break the impasse, though the extra time needed to organize the latter would worry Brussels.
Clearly a deal is Johnson’s preferred choice, but if Parliament won’t comply, his election campaign is ready. Anticipated slogan: Get Brexit Done, With My Deal.
Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.