Boris Johnson won the backing of MPs for his Brexit deal on Tuesday night in a landmark vote in the House of Commons, but suffered an immediate setback as they derailed his attempt to take Britain out of the EU on October 31.
Mr Johnson succeeded where his predecessor Theresa May failed three times, as MPs convincingly backed his Brexit deal in principle by voting for the second reading of the implementation legislation by 329 to 299.
A total of 19 Labour MPs from Leave areas joined independents, pro-EU Conservatives and hardline Eurosceptic Tories to form a ramshackle pro-deal coalition, which delivered a bigger-than-expected majority of 30 for Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement bill.
But the prime minister’s attempt to railroad the bill through parliament in time for his “do or die” Brexit deadline of October 31 was rebuffed by MPs, who insisted on having more time to scrutinise the legislation. MPs rejected the so-called programme motion by 322 votes to 308.
The defeat on the “timetable motion” for the bill means that Mr Johnson will almost certainly miss his Halloween deadline. The EU will now consider offering him a delay to Brexit to allow the prime minister to put the bill on the statute book.
It also makes it highly unlikely that Mr Johnson will be able to enact the bill — which puts the UK-EU exit treaty on to the domestic statute book — in time to hold a snap general election before Christmas.
Donald Tusk, the EU Council president, reacted immediately to say that he would “recommend” that EU leaders accept the UK’s request to delay the Brexit deadline until January 31, 2020.
Mr Johnson said that it was “welcome, even joyful” that MPs had voted for the first time for a Brexit deal, but added he was “disappointed” that his breakneck dash to receive Commons approval for the legislation had been thwarted.
He said he would “pause the legislation” to see how the EU responded to what he said was parliament’s request for more time. “One way or another, we will leave the EU with this deal,” he added.
The January extension request was made in a letter that Mr Johnson sent to Mr Tusk on Saturday after the prime minister failed to secure MPs’ backing for his Brexit deal by October 19, and legislation required him to ask for a delay.
But Mr Johnson did not sign the letter, reflecting how he has so far strongly resisted allowing Brexit to slip beyond October 31.
Mr Tusk said on Tuesday evening that an extension would stave off the risk of a no-deal Brexit, and reflected the reality that Mr Johnson had decided to pause the ratification process.
Mr Johnson’s allies had threatened to pull the legislation and hold an election if the EU proposed an extension of more than 10 days. They also want Brussels to make it clear that any extension is a one-off and cannot be rolled over.
“That won’t happen, so in practice we’ll be pulling the bill,” said one ally. However other Downing Street insiders insisted that Mr Johnson should stick with the legislation and deliver Brexit, albeit with a delay. “We have come this far,” said another aide.
Ministers tried to avert a defeat on the timetable motion by promising concessions to MPs, including giving parliament a say on whether the government should seek an extension to the Brexit transition period — due to expire in December 2020 — if no trade deal with the EU was in place.
Robert Buckland, justice secretary, said the government would bring forward an amendment “to allow parliament to have its say on the merits of an extension”. MPs want to avoid another “no deal” cliff-edge at the end of next year.
Nick Boles, former Tory minister, has tabled an amendment to the withdrawal agreement bill which would see Britain automatically request an extension to the transition period unless parliament votes against it.
Throughout an emotional Commons debate, MPs complained about Mr Johnson’s attempt to curtail debate on the 110-page bill, with the aim of completing its Commons stages by Thursday night.
Emma Little-Pengelly, a Democratic Unionist party MP, said the Commons should have more time to debate a bill which would put a customs border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National party, denounced the move to restrict debate: “What are we doing?” he asked. “Let this house do its job.”
Mr Johnson said that, while the EU was deciding whether to grant an Article 50 extension, the government would step up planning for a possible no-deal Brexit on October 31.
The European Commission’s official response to the UK vote noted that Britain has already formally requested an extension to January 31.
Previous Brexit delays granted by the EU were designed in a way that would have allowed Britain to leave before the new exit deadline day, if the UK were ready to do so. When EU leaders agreed in April to delay Brexit to October 31, they said that the prolongation “should last only as long as necessary.”
EU diplomats said that the same approach could be used this time, respecting the date that Britain has already asked for, while leaving the door firmly open to an earlier exit.
“Prime minister Johnson has already asked for an extension until January 31, 2020,” noted one EU diplomat. “So there will potentially be enough time for the prime minister to consider a way forward and for the UK parliament to scrutinise the agreement.”
“It is difficult to understand why the prime minister wants to press the pause button when we thought he wanted to get Brexit done,” the diplomat said.
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