Boris Johnson’s “do or die” plan to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 has been thrown into disarray after MPs voted to delay a crunch vote on his new Brexit deal and forced him to seek an extension to the Article 50 exit process.
The prime minister had hoped MPs would back his new deal in a so-called meaningful vote, but instead the House of Commons voted on Saturday afternoon by 322 to 306 to back a motion tabled by Oliver Letwin, the former Tory cabinet minister, to put the crucial vote on hold.
The effect of the vote, which took place against the backdrop of a huge pro-EU demonstration in central London, was that Mr Johnson was now required by law to write a letter to the EU27 asking for an extension to Brexit beyond October 31.
But a defiant PM told MPs — on a rare Saturday Commons sitting — he was “not daunted or dismayed” and he would continue to pursue a departure by Halloween.
He is expected to force another vote on his Brexit deal next Tuesday, with hopes growing in Downing Street that parliamentarians, including Tory Eurosceptics and Labour MPs from Leave areas, will ultimately help the prime minister “get Brexit done”.
Amid uproar in the Commons, Mr Johnson suggested he would not comply with the so-called Benn Act, which requires him to apply for a Brexit delay if MPs had not approved his deal by 11pm on Saturday.
“I will not negotiate a delay with the EU,” he said in a statement after his latest Commons defeat on Brexit. “A further delay would be bad for this country, bad for the EU and bad for democracy.”
A spokesman for Mr Johnson refused to say whether the PM would write the letter to Brussels. “Governments comply with the law,” he said, refusing to answer any questions about what this meant.
One option would be for Mr Johnson to write a letter to Brussels but press ahead with attempts to win the backing of MPs for a deal before October 31. Another would be to refuse to send the letter and test the Benn Act in the courts next week.
“The prime minister must now comply with the law,” said Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour party, saying that parliament would not allow itself to be “blackmailed” by a PM threatening to oversee a no-deal exit at the end of the month.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the Commons, said the government hoped to bring forward another “meaningful vote” on the deal on Monday but Commons Speaker John Bercow said he would reflect on whether to accept such a move.
Tory MPs said it might reduce pressure on Mr Johnson to write an immediate letter to Brussels seeking a Brexit delay, but Sir Oliver would almost certainly put down the same amendment that was carried on Saturday to curtail the vote. “We’d have the same result,” one Tory MP said.
The government’s defeat on the Letwin amendment blindsided Downing Street, which had been focused almost entirely on the main matter in hand: putting together a fragile cross-party coalition of at least 320 MPs to back the Brexit deal.
“The frustrating thing is that we were edging towards a victory,” said one Tory aide. Analysis of the voting on the Letwin amendment suggested Downing Street might indeed have secured a narrow victory if there had been a vote on the deal.
In the first Saturday sitting of the House of Commons since the Falklands War in 1982, 10 independent Conservative MPs voted for the Letwin amendment, most of whom had indicated they would support Mr Johnson’s deal.
The Democratic Unionist party, which has fallen out with Mr Johnson over the implications of his deal for Northern Ireland, also voted for the Letwin amendment despite frenetic last-minute lobbying by the PM ahead of the vote.
Sir Oliver’s amendment stalled the momentum Mr Johnson had gained in Brussels last week, when the EU27 agreed a new Brexit deal that included the introduction of a new customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Sir Oliver, who worked as David Cameron’s policy chief, devised his manoeuvre to avoid the possibility of an “accidental” no-deal exit on October 31.
He feared that if MPs approved Mr Johnson’s deal on Saturday, there was a risk the UK might have fallen out of the EU without a deal by October 31 if the legislation needed to ratify the agreement had not been passed.
Sir Oliver’s amendment said the “meaningful vote” required to approve the bill could only be given by MPs once the Withdrawal Agreement bill (WAB) had completed its passage through the Commons.
The apparently technical amendment is highly problematic for Mr Johnson. Not only does it force him into writing a humiliating letter to the EU asking to delay Brexit beyond October 31, it complicates his ability to secure Brexit on his terms.
MPs can now attempt to amend the WAB during its passage through parliament, possibly by seeking to attach a “confirmatory referendum” to the deal, as demanded by the hundreds of thousands of protesters marching through London demanding a second referendum.
Before the passage of the Letwin amendment, Mr Johnson could have threatened MPs that if they tried to change the terms of his Brexit deal he would simply pull the WAB and take Britain out of the EU on October 31 without a deal.