Denis Staunton: Timetable failure should not obscure Johnson victory on Brexit deal
Johnson can look forward to likely passage of deal in a few weeks, with or without DUP backing
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson: would appear to no longer need the DUP’s backing. Photograph: HO/PRU/AFP via Getty
Boris Johnson’s failure to win support for his accelerated timetable for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) should not obscure the significance or the scale of his victory on Tuesday night.
The House of Commons not only approved a Brexit deal for the first time but it did so by a comfortable majority of 30.
Johnson confounded expectations by finding that majority without the votes of the DUP, whose support had long been seen as crucial to winning over hardline Conservative Brexiteers. The self-styled Spartans folded last Saturday when they swallowed their remaining scruples and declared their support for the deal.
On Tuesday, Johnson won over two more groups: 19 Labour MPs and most of the 21 former Conservatives who lost the whip over their opposition to a no-deal Brexit. The size of the majority in favour of the deal in principle should give the government the leeway it needs to survive the committee stage when the Bill can be amended.
Opening the debate, the prime minister said he would pull the Bill if MPs failed to approve the programme motion that would see it pass all its stages in the Commons by Thursday. After the vote, he said he would “pause” the legislation while EU leaders decided how to respond to the letter he sent last week requesting an extension to Britain’s EU membership until January 31st.
Tuesday’s vote on the programme motion means Johnson cannot fulfil his promise to take Britain out of the EU by October 31st. But despite Downing Street briefings demanding that the extension should be as short as possible, its formal length is unlikely to matter. If the European Council grants a three-month extension, it is likely to be on the basis that Britain can leave earlier if Westminster and the European Parliament have ratified the withdrawal agreement.
Weeks of scrutiny
Jeremy Corbyn has offered to work with the government on a new timetable for the Bill, which is now likely to face weeks of scrutiny rather than days. During that time, the disquiet expressed by unionists over the proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland will not diminish, not least because there is little Johnson can do to assuage it.
Amendments to the Bill cannot change the text of the withdrawal agreement or the Northern Ireland protocol, so the government cannot compromise with the DUP on the issues of customs and how Stormont expresses its consent. But after Tuesday’s vote, Johnson can look forward to the likely passage of his Brexit deal in a few weeks, with or without the support of the DUP.