The Irish Times view on Brexit: Showdown deferred
It’s clear that the bitter divisions caused by this debacle will be one of the defining features of British life for many years to come
It says something about Boris Johnson’s standing in the House of Commons that a majority of MPs felt they had to intervene to thwart a vote on the prime minister’s Brexit deal on Saturday so as to prevent him from scheming to drive the UK off the cliff of a ruinous no-deal exit. The so-called Letwin amendment delayed approval of Johnson’s deal until after the Withdrawal Agreement Bill has been agreed by parliament. That meant Johnson could not meet the deadline, set down under the so-called Benn Act, to win Commons support for his deal. He was forced to write a letter to the EU seeking a delay to Brexit until January 31st 2020.
Saturday’s reversal will probably prove to be a temporary setback for Johnson. It’s clear that he is close to securing a majority for his exit deal, which has the backing of Brexiteer ultras and up to 20 Labour MPs who will soon face the electorate in resolutely Leave-minded constituencies. That coalition of convenience could well be enough to prevent the DUP, still smarting from Johnson’s betrayal, from scuppering the deal.
The EU has every interest in avoiding a no-deal exit. It certainly doesn’t want to be blamed for one
Either way, the tragi-comic manner of Johnson’s compliance with the Benn Act is little more than a distraction. Had he refused to seek an extension by 11pm on Saturday, it would have thrown the UK into a grave legal crisis. He did comply, and the PR wheeze surrounding it - Johnson’s request was unsigned and accompanied by a separate letter imploring the EU not to extend - is of no legal consequence. Despite EU leaders’ efforts to assist Johnson last week by hinting that they shared his aversion to more delay, it’s a safe bet that an extension would be granted. The EU has every interest in avoiding a no-deal exit. It certainly doesn’t want to be blamed for one.
Johnson claimed on Saturday that his deal would allow the UK to 'move on'. Some hope
While it now seems likely that Johnson will get his deal over the line, and before the EU responds to the extension request, there is a sliver of a chance that things could yet go against him. On Sunday, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, indicated that his party could support the deal if there was an amendment attaching a “confirmatory referendum” to ensure it commanded public support. That’s a sensible idea, but it’s still a long shot: it’s not clear whether Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s eurosceptic leader, would support a second referendum. And in previous Commons votes, there has never been a majority for bringing the question back to the people.
Johnson claimed on Saturday that his deal would allow the UK to “move on”. Some hope. His deal covers only the divorce and the transition period. The hard part - settling on Britain’s future relationship with the EU - is still to come. And with up to a million people marching in London on Saturday in support of a second referendum, it’s clear that the bitter divisions caused by this debacle will be one of the defining features of British life for many years to come.