Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans were again thrown into chaos after the UK parliament voted to take more time to scrutinise the deal the prime minister struck with the European Union this week, forcing him to seek the delay he vowed he never would.
Without Parliament’s sign-off, Johnson is required by law to send a letter to Brussels on Sunday requesting that Brexit be delayed until January 31 — three months after his self-imposed deadline. At a rare Saturday sitting, lawmakers voted by 322 to 306 in favour of a rebel Tory’s proposal to withhold their approval for now.
Afterwards, Johnson said that he will not negotiate a delay with the EU. His office refused to say what this meant, but, speaking earlier, the prime minister accepted that he would have to obey the law.
“Whatever letters they may seek to force the government to write,” he told Parliament at the start of the day, “it cannot change my judgment that further delay is pointless, expensive and deeply corrosive of public trust.”
The result prolongs the 3 1/2 years of political turmoil triggered by the referendum. The possible outcomes range from delaying Brexit — allowing time for a general election or a second referendum on leaving — to a battle in court, or a chaotic and economically damaging departure from the bloc without a deal in just 12 days. Johnson still has a chance to deliver his pledge to get Britain out of the EU by the end of the month. A Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be put before parliament next week, and it could begin its journey into law as soon as Tuesday.
The scale of Johnson’s defeat on Saturday, though, shows the problem he has created for himself by alienating his allies in the Democratic Unionist Party. Their 10 votes made the difference between defeat and victory. They had supported Johnson until this week, when he signed a Brexit deal that creates a customs border in the Irish Sea — a concession designed to secure Ireland and the EU’s support for the agreement. The DUP angrily denounced that during the debate. When Johnson does try to push his deal through, the question will be, as it was on Saturday morning, whether he has the votes.
The day saw Conservative MPs, both current and almost all those he expelled last month, saying they would vote with him, as well as a small number of Labour MPs. If he can hold that coalition together for two weeks, he might have a chance.
Johnson could still try to circumvent the legislation forcing him to seek a delay, but he is certain to face legal challenges that could end up in the Supreme Court.
Assuming he concedes and sends the letter, an extension will require the unanimous agreement of EU leaders. On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron said one shouldn’t be granted. But Macron made similar noises before approving a Brexit delay in April. EU officials say it’s unlikely that he or any other leader would refuse another one, particularly if the UK was headed for a general election.
On Saturday, the French presidency said in a statement: “Our message is clear: a deal has been negotiated. It is now up to the British parliament to say if it approves it or rejects it. An additional delay is in no one’s interest.”
If attempts to stop a no-deal Brexit fail, the consequences for Britain are likely to be severe. According to the government’s own analysis, a no-deal Brexit would cause disruption to trade, financial services, and food supplies, and risk civil disorder.