Brexit: Commons amendment vote only a setback for Boris Johnson
Analysis: Prime minister still in a strong position to win approval for his Brexit deal
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacting to the result of the vote delaying approval of his Brexit deal at the House of Commons on Saturday. Photograph: UK Parliamentary Recording Unit.
The Commons vote for Oliver Letwin’s amendment by 322 to 306 is a setback for Boris Johnson, made possible by the DUP’s 10 votes, but it leaves him still in a strong position to win approval for his deal. The amendment defers parliamentary approval of the deal until after the prime minister has requested a three-month delay to Brexit under the Benn Act.
The Act requires him to write a letter by 11pm on Saturday, requesting the extension and although Johnson told MPs he would not “negotiate” a delay, he did not suggest that he would not write the letter.
“I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so. I will tell our friends and colleagues in the EU exactly what I’ve told everyone in the last 88 days that I’ve served as prime minister: that further delay would be bad for this country, bad for the European Union and bad for democracy,” he said.
“And I hope that our European Union colleagues and friends will not be attracted as the benches opposite are by delay. I don’t think they’ll be attracted by delay.”
During the debate on Saturday, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds left the chamber for consultations with the government but he was clearly unimpressed by their efforts to persuade him to vote against the Letwin amendment. The amendment offers the DUP an opportunity to facilitate changes to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) which could mitigate the deal’s impact on Northern Ireland.
The WAB is an implementation bill and amendments to it cannot change the text of the withdrawal agreement, the Northern Ireland protocol and political declaration Johnson agreed with the EU last week, which will have to be approved in a meaningful vote. But the bill can put the government under a legal obligation to pursue specific aims in the negotiations for a free trade agreement with the EU and it could make ratification of the deal contingent on a confirmatory referendum.
One potential amendment that could win the DUP’s support would be one that obliges the government to seek to leave the entire United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU. The DUP opposed a similar amendment a few months ago, when it lost by just two votes. But if the entire UK remains in a customs union with the EU, the Brexit deal’s requirement for a customs border in the Irish Sea would fall away.
Dodds made a passionate plea to MPs not to allow weariness to become an excuse for weakness on Brexit. But although their votes ensured a delay to the ratification of Johnson’s deal, the evaporation of support for the DUP on the Conservative benches is ominous for the party.
The DUP hoped that at least 10 Conservatives would oppose Johnson’s deal on account of their concerns about its implications for Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. But former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble endorsed the deal before the debate, persuading wavering Conservatives that it was neither a threat to the Union nor to the Belfast Agreement.
Independent Unionist Sylvia Hermon pointed out that Trimble is now a Tory peer but he was also a fierce critic of the backstop when it was Conservative policy.
Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested after the debate that there could be a meaningful vote on the deal next Monday, ahead of the introduction of the WAB. But Letwin said that such a manoeuvre would serve to negate the impact of his amendment and of the Benn Act and Bercow is expected to reject it when he makes a statement to the House on Monday afternoon.
Johnson needs to persuade up to 14 of those who voted for the Letwin amendment or abstained on Saturday to support the programme motion for the WAB and back his deal if it is to win Commons approval. Some of the amendment’s backers, including Letwin himself, have already said they will do so and the weariness Dodds complained of is likely to persuade others to do the same.