Brexit: Johnson faces into week of crucial votes
Evaporation of support for DUP on Tory benches an unexpected blow for the party
Despite Saturday’s setback, Boris Johnson remains in a strong position to get his deal through parliament and deliver Brexit but may struggle to do so by October 31st. Photograph: EPA/UK parliament/Jessica Taylor
British prime minister Boris Johnson’s ploy of sending three letters to the European Union on Saturday night won him some helpful headlines in the Sunday newspapers.
But Downing Street’s fighting talk cannot mask the reality that the prime minister has done what he said he would lie dead in a ditch to avoid – send a letter requesting a three-month extension to Britain’s EU membership.
The Commons 322 to 306 majority on Saturday for Oliver Letwin’s amendment, made possible by the DUP’s 10 votes, forced Johnson’s hand by ensuring that his Brexit deal was not approved ahead of a deadline set by the Benn Act for requesting the extension.
The amendment defers parliamentary approval of the deal until the legislation to implement it – the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (WAB) – is passed.
'We believe the referendum result should be respected and delivered on but it can’t be at the risk of separating Northern Ireland out from the rest of the UK'
Despite Saturday’s setback, Johnson remains in a strong position to get his deal through parliament and deliver Brexit but he may struggle to do so by October 31st.
The government wants to put the deal to a “meaningful vote” on Monday but Speaker of the House John Bercow, who described the plan on Saturday as “most curious and irregular”, is expected to rule it out of order.
If there is no meaningful vote on Monday, Johnson’s next hurdle comes on Tuesday when the government introduces the WAB. A number of MPs who backed the Letwin amendment have made clear they will vote with the government on the WAB’s second reading, the first stage in its progress through Westminster, putting a majority within Johnson’s reach.
He will face a bigger challenge on the programme motion, which sets out the timetable for debating the Bill. Johnson wants to move it through parliament as quickly as possible so that Britain can leave the EU by October 31st.
But opposition parties, perhaps with the support of expelled Conservatives like former chancellor Philip Hammond, will press for a longer timetable to allow for a full debate on every element of the Bill.
The WAB is an implementation Bill and amendments to it cannot change the text of the withdrawal agreement, the Northern Ireland protocol or the political declaration Johnson agreed with the EU last week. But they could put the government under a legal obligation to pursue specific aims in the negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the EU or make ratification of the deal contingent on a confirmatory referendum.
One potential amendment that could win the DUP’s support would oblige the government to seek a customs union with the EU for the entire United Kingdom.
The DUP opposed a customs union in an indicative vote a few months ago, when it lost by just three 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.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said last March that he would vote to remain in the EU rather than risk Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.
“The answer must be something that works for the whole of the United Kingdom, that’s our first and main priority. We want to see Brexit delivered. We believe the referendum result should be respected and delivered on but it can’t be at the risk of separating Northern Ireland out from the rest of the UK,” he said.
Preparations for a referendum would take up to five months, requiring an extension of Britain’s EU membership well into next year
On Saturday, 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 was an unexpected blow for the party and an important gain for the prime minister.
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.
With the text of the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol closed, there is little Johnson can offer the DUP to win back their support. So the party’s best hope of limiting the damage, as they see it, that the deal does to Northern Ireland’s place in the union is to support amendments that would bring the whole of the UK into as close an alignment with the EU as the North would find itself under the proposed arrangements.
One potential amendment the DUP are currently shying away from would demand that the Brexit deal should be put to a confirmatory referendum before it is ratified. Preparations for a referendum would take up to five months, requiring an extension of Britain’s EU membership well into next year.
Previous votes on a second referendum have failed to win a majority but with Labour prepared to whip in favour of such an amendment, it would have a better chance of success this time.
EU leaders will not consider their response to Johnson’s request for an extension until the middle of the week, after parliament determines the timetable for the WAB. The simplest option would be to grant the three-month extension requested in the letter but to do so on the same terms the EU gave Theresa May when she requested a delay.
This would mean that, if Westminster ratified the deal before the January 31st deadline, Britain would leave the EU on the second day of the month following ratification.
One consequence of a longer timetable for debating the WAB would be to close the window for a general election before Christmas. Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill has told the government that December 12th is the latest possible date for an election this year because school and village halls will be booked for Christmas fairs and unavailable for use as polling stations.
Postponing the election would give Labour an opportunity to improve its dismal polling position, probably at the expense of the Liberal Democrats who would be robbed of their signature issue if Brexit has been delivered. For the prime minister, the stakes of next week’s votes could not be higher.