LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s defining mission to take the U.K. out of the European Union in nine days’ time was derailed as members of Parliament dramatically blocked his plan to rush the Brexit deal into law.
European Council President Donald Tusk responded by saying he would recommend the EU accept the U.K.’s request for an extension. While he didn’t set a date, his suggestion that this could be agreed on by letter, and without a summit, pointed to accepting the British Parliament’s request of a new exit date of Jan. 31.
Johnson earlier in the day threatened that a delay until January would see him try to call an election. He didn’t repeat that threat in the evening, though. It is possible the EU will offer to allow an earlier exit if Johnson can get his deal passed in the next month, something that seems plausible after the first vote of the evening.
Minutes before Johnson was defeated on the timetable for his bill, he was victorious, with members of Parliament voting 329 to 299 to endorse the general principles of his deal. That is a margin that gives him a decent chance of getting the bill through.
The question is whether Johnson decides to use the time offered by the EU to pass his deal, or to go for an election — something that could give him a majority, or could see him lose power to Labour, putting the entire Brexit project into doubt.
In any event, the chances of a “no-deal” Brexit are diminishing.
After the votes, the prime minister’s office declined to rule out agreeing to a short delay beyond the Oct. 31 deadline, and Johnson said, “One way or another, we will leave the EU with this deal, to which this House has just given its assent.”
Speaking afterward, Johnson said his draft Brexit law will now be paused. “Let me be clear: Our policy remains that we should not delay, that we should leave the EU on Oct. 31 and that is what I will say to the EU and I will report back to the House,” Johnson told the Commons. He promised to step up contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit, and to consult with EU leaders and tell them he doesn’t want another delay. Tusk’s response came two hours later.
Earlier, when MPs had voted to endorse the broad thrust of Johnson’s deal, the winning margin included 19 members of the main opposition Labour Party. Crucially, Johnson won that vote without the Democratic Unionist Party, his former allies, whose support he lost after he broke a commitment to them not to create a customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland. If Johnson can keep those 19 Labour MPs on board, he can pass his deal.
Labour’s Lisa Nandy, one of the 19, warned Johnson that their support shouldn’t be taken for granted. “Those of us who are seeking to engage in the detail do so not because we will support a Tory Brexit — our votes at Third Reading are by no means secure — but because we want to see if we can improve the deal and keep people’s trust in our democracy.”
The government is making promises to secure their support, and that of former Tories who have their doubts about Johnson. Minutes before the votes, MPs were assured they would get a say on whether the government extended its post-Brexit transition period if it hadn’t concluded a trade deal with the EU by the end of next year. Some had feared another no-deal cliff edge.
But though the prime minister could get support for his deal in principle, MPs refused to be rushed into signing it into law.
Johnson’s opponents argued that they needed more time to scrutinize the historic exit deal than the three days of debate he had proposed for the bill to pass all its stages in the Commons.
And so, MPs voted 322 to 308 against Johnson’s proposed fast-track timetable for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill — the crucial piece of law to implement the deal he struck in Brussels last week.
The defeat makes it now virtually impossible for the prime minister to get his hard-won accord ratified in time to meet his Oct. 31 deadline for leaving, his defining goal since he took over as prime minister from Theresa May in July.
Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn offered to work with Johnson to come up with a better timetable to help Parliament improve the deal.