By Tom-Henry Jones
Since the October 17 when Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed a new amended Brexit deal with the EU, the path of passing it through Parliament last week was fraught with obstacles.
On Saturday October 19, the Government called Parliament to sit for its first Saturday sitting first time since the Falklands War in 1982. The purpose of the sitting was to vote on the new Brexit deal, in a meaningful vote. A majority would have meant that Johnson could have delivered on his promise of Brexit by October 31. The current Parliamentary arithmetic meant that the vote was due to be extremely close with it being rumoured to come down to only a few votes.
The Letwin Amendment:
During the Parliamentary session on Saturday, Conservative remain voter, Sir Oliver Letwin laid an amendment to significantly alter the purpose of the vote. The amendment changed the vote from a straight up and down vote and instead wanted it to be published as a formal bill, to be known as the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB).
The Letwin amendment passed with a majority of 16 votes, as MPs who previously stated they would back the original deal also voted in favour of this amendment and against the Government. It therefore significantly hampered Johnson’s previous efforts of marking the super Saturday session as the official completion of his attempts to deliver Brexit.
The Conservatives portrayed the events to be further examples of Parliament blocking Brexit. Meanwhile, supporters of the amendment asserted that it would allow further scrutiny and debate on the new Brexit deal. The amendment successfully stifled Johnson’s newfound momentum, just when it appeared increasingly likely that his new Brexit deal might have passed with a majority in the House of Commons.
The Withdrawal Agreement Bill:
As the Letwin Amendment determined, the Government had to publish the Brexit deal as a whole Bill. In such a form it allows for various amendments and alterations to the bill. Amendments, if they are selected by the Speaker and then receive a majority in the House, will dramatically alter Johnson’s new Brexit deal. Such potential amendments include the deal to be put to a confirmatory referendum or the deal to place the UK within the customs union as part of a ‘softer Brexit’.
The Government announced the Commons would vote on the second reading of the Bill on Monday. The second reading is a vote to allow the Bill to progress through to the next stage of Parliamentary scrutiny, the Committee stage. Therefore, passing it through the second reading does not officially confirm the passing of the Brexit deal. The Government won the vote with a majority of 30.
It was signalled as a symbolic victory for Boris Johnson, although is was not official, his Brexit deal had secured a majority. Although many who had voted for it, did so, so that they could amend and improve the Bill in the later stages of Parliamentary procedure. Many of those intent on doing so were Labour MPs sympathetic to the Leave cause, and by voting with the Government, broke a three-line whip by the Labour Party.
After passing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the second reading, the Government outlined a timetable as to how to proceed with passing the legislation in its programme motion. Johnson is under immense pressure to deliver Brexit by the October 31 and in vowing to do so, meant that he sought for the bill to be passed through Parliament at unprecedented speed. In its Programme Motion, the Government proposed that all the relevant legislation be voted on and passed by the end of last week, in time for the looming deadline October 31. In a vote to approve the Government’s timetable, the Government lost by 14 votes. MPs who voted against the timetable criticised the pace of the legislation, claiming that it had not been given adequate time to debate, amend and scrutinise the bill.
Jeremy Corbyn stated that the Prime Minister was the “the author of his own misfortune.” In response to the loss, Johnson immediately stated that the Government would pause the legalisation and ramp up No-Deal planning as it awaited the EU’s verdict on the request of the extension to the Brexit deadline.
A week after Boris Johnson sent the drafted letter to the EU seeking an extension to the Brexit deadline, the Government is still awaiting the outcome of the EU discussions. Alongside the first letter, Johnson also sent a second letter in which he stated that an extension is not the policy that the Government is either seeking or supporting.
However, under the Benn Act it was written in law that Johnson had to request for an extension if a deal had not been agreed by October 17. After Johnson’s latest loss in the Commons regarding his timetable, Donald Tusk tweeted that he would “recommend the EU27 accept the UK request for an extension” in order to “avoid a no-deal Brexit.” An extension to the Brexit deadline would be a failure in regard to Boris Johnson’s promise of delivering Brexit by October 31 and it would seemingly be a political embarrassment if it were to happen.
Talk of a general election has been growing for weeks. Back in September Boris Johnson had previously attempted to call an election but failed after Labour and other opposition parties blocked it. In their reasoning for blocking a general election the opposition parties wanted the threat of No-Deal on the 31st to have been completely ruled out and would only support an election if an extension were granted. Therefore, as extension appears imminent, the Government has laid yet another motion to approve a general election before Christmas on December 12.