It was good while it lasted. For a heady 36 hours Boris Johnson appeared to have the big momentum. He had confounded critics by securing a new European deal, he was clawing his way towards getting the votes. Little by little, Labour rebels were being pulled aboard. Brexit seemed just hours away from becoming a reality.
Instead, as the huge cheers from the thousands of People’s Vote campaigners outside parliament immediately attested, he now finds himself trapped on the never-ending Escher stairs of Brexit politics.
His bid to avoid a Brexit delay by securing parliamentary approval for his deal in a rare Saturday sitting was defeated and for one simple reason. MPs are not prepared to take the prime minister at his word. The key figures in denying Mr Johnson his victory were some of those Tories he had expelled from his party — men and women who were in the main ready to support his deal, but who did not trust him or his supporters not to use parliamentary tactics to force the country into a no-deal Brexit. Instead they voted for an amendment proposed by Oliver Letwin, the now purged former Tory cabinet minister, to delay approval for his deal until the legislation underpinning it has been approved.
The consequence is that he is in the one place he least wished to be; facing a legal requirement to send a letter to the EU requesting an extension to the Brexit deadline. This need not be the end of his deal, but the hard fact is that it is only the imminence of a deadline which has ever dragged the Brexit process forward. Given the chance to delay or decide, MPs have invariably preferred to delay. His own October 31 deadline now looks in serious jeopardy.
And yet, while this is undoubtedly a significant setback for the prime minister, remainers may be mistaken to see this as anything more than a temporary reprieve. The defeat of 322-306 was not huge. A number of those who voted against Mr Johnson on this occasion are not inherently opposed to his deal and have said so explicitly. They voted to close what they saw as a loophole to the laws designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Having shut that door, a number will now be ready to support him. It is still desperately close but the path to victory is there.
Nevertheless this defeat carries a cost. The prime minister has lost the sense of inevitability which was giving him momentum. Among Tory whips the belief was that he had the votes for his deal. We cannot now know if that was true. It represents a remarkable failure by the Downing Street machine which, surprisingly, was blindsided by the Letwin amendment, even though it had been mooted for several days.
More worrying for the prime minister is that with the prospect of a further extension his opponents will sense the chance to pick away at the agreement when he tries next week to take the legislation through the Commons. Even if he secures in principle support for his deal, he may face a war of attrition on the withdrawal agreement bill of the threat of no deal is lost.
It is also clear he has lost the Democratic Unionists who feel he has betrayed them by agreeing a customs border in the Irish Sea which will see the region treated differently from the rest of the UK. Before he became leader he had promised that no Conservative prime minister could ever support such a step. Now he is the latest Tory leader to sell out the unionists. It cost him. Their votes were the difference between defeat and victory. The most significant positive for Mr Johnson was that he has all but united his party. All the Brexit hardliners backed the deal as they placed their devotion to Brexit ahead of their devotion to the unionists of Northern Ireland.
Immediately after his defeat Mr Johnson struck a defiant tone, insisting both aggressively and elliptically he would not “negotiate a delay” with the EU. And yet his spokesman added later that “governments comply with the law”. Mr Johnson’s immediate response felt like bluster — an effort to ensure the first reports are not of his caving in on a delay but of MPs once again delaying Brexit. Most MPs expected the letter seeking the Brexit extension would be sent.
In the meantime the government is preparing to bring the full legislation facilitating his Brexit deal — the Withdrawal Agreement bill — back to the Commons on Tuesday with the intention of rushing it through. If MPs vote for it in its first stages, he may persuade EU leaders that their best interests are served by delaying a decision or offering nothing more than a brief “implementation” extension. That vote still looks desperately tight but he may just have the numbers.
Aware that he needed allies, Mr Johnson and his ministers kept to emollient rhetoric during the debate. Even remainers were described as “patriots” and the talk was all of a “deal to heal”. It was not enough this time, but the tone is the right one and he will undoubtedly maintain it.
The challenge for him though is to prevent his bill being picked apart by amendment and delay. A long extension makes that far harder. A short one assists him.
There were few enthusiasts for Mr Johnson’s deal. MPs can see the very real threat it poses to the Union, not just for Northern Ireland, whose economic regime will now diverge from Great Britain’s, but for Scotland whose economic regime will not. But in spite of this defeat it remains alive. Mr Johnson has confounded his opponents once by securing a new deal. The route to confounding his opponents again still exists even if the path is considerably less even.
The power of the “get Brexit done” slogan is being felt in the constituencies. In the words of one cabinet minister, the Tories feel they are “on the right side of the argument”. Saturday was a major setback. It is too early to say it represented defeat.