Stockholm (Ekonamik) – The British parliament again decided to postpone the moment of Brexit reckoning Saturday, this time by voting for an amendment proposed by former Conservative MP Oliver Letwin to withhold support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal until formal ratification legislation is passed.
The vote for the amendment, which passed by 322-306, meant lawmakers would not vote on whether to approve Mr. Johnson’s deal during the extraordinary session Mr Johnson called on Saturday, forcing the Prime Minister to ask the European Union for a deadline delay until January 31.
By midnight, Mr Johnson had sent the letter – a legal obligation under the Benn Act, which requires the Prime Minister to seek to obtain an extension until January 31 if a Brexit bill was not passed by October 19, requesting a further Brexit delay to European Council President Donald Tusk – but with a twist.
Mr Johnson sent three letters – one unsigned photocopy of the request, a letter explaining the situation from the UK Ambassador to the EU, and a letter detailing why Mr Johnson does not want the extension. EU leaders are almost certain to grant it, though Mr Tusk said it would take the Council 2-3 days to consider Mr Johnson’s letters.
Meanwhile, the Commons will hold a vote on the Brexit bill proposed by Mr Johnson on Monday or Tuesday, depending on how established parliamentary procedure is interpreted. The uncertain nature of Mr Johnson’s request and whether it actually complies with the Benn Act means there could be a legal challenge in the courts, and there are other legal challenges by anti-Brexit campaigners already pending and under consideration by the courts.
Mr Johnson told parliament Saturday he would introduce the motion legislation needed to leave the EU on October 31 next week, suggesting that the government would try to force it through. This, however, could bring about legislative changes to that legislation itself. The Labour Party could push for adding a referendum on the agreement, as it has stated it would do, but it is far from obvious the parliamentary math is there for that.
Despite the temporary loss for Mr Johnson, he may well nevertheless have secured a scenario which will deliver a personal victory for him. Despite the ignominy of having sent the extension letter to Brussels – something he has said he would rather die in a ditch than do – he can now likely count on 306 votes both for his Brexit deal and for the motion needed to push through the legislation by October 31.
This means his whips will have between 48 and 72 hours to find the remaining 14 votes. Mr Johnson’s October dream therefore still very much lives, and it is not clear that a defeat next time, either, would damage him politically at this stage.
Mr Johnson can probably count on the public mood, too, to mostly either support passing the Brexit bill itself or to support him personally in trying to get it passed – despite massive demonstrations Saturday demanding either a public referendum on the bill or a 2nd referendum on Brexit itself – whether he does so by October 31 or not. Brexit fatigue is such that Mr Johnson’s machinations to preserve his own power feeds into it and the public that is not already opposed to Mr Johnson just want him to finish the job. He will blame parliament for any failure to leave and the EU for complicating his task, at which point he is likely to reap the benefit in polls ahead of a likely general election.
He may have preferred to be dead in a ditch after today, but the chances are Mr Johnson is feeling rather happy with himself.