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Brexit on a knife edge as Boris Johnson stakes all on 'Super Saturday' vote

In one of 3-year Brexit drama, Johnson confounded his opponents on Thursday by clinching a new deal with the EU, even though the bloc had promised it would never reopen a treaty it agreed last year

Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at the European Union leaders’ summit in Brussels | Reuters

Britain’s exit from the EU hung on a knife-edge on Friday as British PM Boris Johnson scrambled to persuade doubters to rally behind his last-minute EU divorce deal in an extraordinary vote in Parliament. In one of the three-year Brexit drama, Johnson confounded his opponents on Thursday by clinching a new deal with the EU, even though the bloc had promised it would never reopen a treaty it agreed last year. Yet Johnson must now ratify the deal in the British parliament. Where he has no majority and opponents are plotting maximum political damage ahead of an imminent election.

The numbers are too close to call: Johnson must garner 318 votes in the 650-seat parliament to get a deal approved. Yet his Northern Irish allies are opposed to a deal and the three main opposition parties have pledged to vote it down.

“We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control — now parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday,” Johnson said ahead of the first Saturday sitting of parliament since the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands.

If he wins the vote, Johnson will go down in history as the leader who delivered Brexit - for good or bad. If he fails, Johnson will face the humiliation of Brexit unraveling after repeatedly promising that he would get it done. Goldman Sachs said it thought the deal would pass and raised its estimate of Brexit with a deal on October 31 to 65 per cent from 60 per cent.

It cut its odds on a no-deal departure to 10 per cent from 15 per cent and kept unchanged its 25 per cent probability of no Brexit.

The pound held at five-month highs of $1.2874 against the dollar, down from Thursday’s peak of $1.2988.

Johnson won the top job by staking his career on getting Brexit done by the latest deadline of Oct. 31 after his predecessor, Theresa May, was forced to delay the departure date. Parliament rejected her deal three times, by margins of between 58 and 230 votes.

Downing Street is casting the Saturday vote as a last chance to get Brexit done with lawmakers facing the option of either approving the deal or propelling the United Kingdom to a disorderly no-deal exit that could divide the West, hurt global growth and trigger violence in Northern Ireland.

‘PRETTY CLOSE’

To win the vote, Johnson must persuade enough Brexit-supporting rebels in both his own Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party to back his deal.

Concerned about the potential impact of a no-deal departure, Johnson’s opponents have already passed a law demanding he delay Brexit unless he gets a withdrawal deal approved by Saturday.

The government has said both that it will comply with this law and that Britain will leave the EU on Oct. 31 whatever happens. Johnson has not explained how he plans to take these two apparently contradictory steps.

The message from Johnson’s advisers is: “New deal or no deal but no delay.”

The prime minister was due to hold a cabinet meeting at 1500 GMT on Friday.

As lawmakers mull one of the United Kingdom’s most significant geopolitical moves since World War Two, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators are due to march towards parliament demanding another referendum on EU membership.

Parliament will sit from 0830 GMT on Saturday. Johnson will make a statement to lawmakers, after which there will be a debate and then a vote. The debate was originally scheduled to last 90 minutes, but is no longer time-limited.