Boris Johnson’s hopes of securing Commons approval of his Brexit deal were dashed on Saturday when he pulled the key vote on the pact he had signed with the EU.
Government whips withdrew the so-called “meaningful vote” after an amendment was passed withholding full support for Mr Johnson’s deal until a huge piece of accompanying legislation — called the Withdrawal Agreement bill (WAB) — had passed through parliament.
Downing Street officials said the amendment — introduced by former Conservative minister Oliver Letwin — meant the meaningful vote was now “meaningless”.
Here, the FT looks at how Downing Street is changing its tactics.
Why did the Letwin amendment succeed?
MPs felt that, without the Letwin amendment, there was a chance the UK could fall out of the EU with a no-deal Brexit on October 31.
This was because, under UK law, the meaningful vote had to be followed by the WAB getting through all its parliamentary stages by October 31 — otherwise a no-deal Brexit could still happen.
Sir Oliver’s amendment effectively served as an insurance policy against leaving without a deal until all the Brexit legislation had been passed.
Is the UK now compelled to request a further Brexit delay?
Under the Benn Act passed by a group of cross-party MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit, Mr Johnson is obliged to seek an extension of Britain’s EU membership until January 31, 2020, if a meaningful vote on his deal has not been passed by Saturday, October 19.
To comply with the law, Mr Johnson sent a letter to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, before midnight on Saturday asking for an extension to January 31 2020. The letter was not signed by Mr Johnson’ – and was accompanied by a statement from the prime minister telling Mr Tusk that he felt no need for an extension – but the EU considers the formal extension request to have been lodged by the government.
The move is likely to mean Mr Johnson has not broken the law and is compliant with the terms of the Benn Act.
What will Mr Johnson’s next move be?
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons and arch-Brexiter, said there would be another meaningful vote on Monday but it was unclear if speaker John Bercow would allow this. Even if it was allowed Sir Oliver could look to repeat his move from Saturday to ensure any crunch vote was again deferred.
A more likely route is for Downing Street to present the WAB implementation legislation to the House of Commons on Tuesday. The government would then hold two critical votes that day.
For the first, MPs would be asked to hold the landmark vote on the WAB, called a “second reading”. After Saturday’s setback, the government would likely portray this as the new and critical test of whether parliament supported Mr Johnson’s deal for leaving the EU.
For the second, MPs would be asked to vote on a “programme motion” stating that the WAB must go through all its parliamentary stages and get on to the statute book by October 31. This is the deadline by which Mr Johnson insists the UK must leave the EU.
If both votes pass, the government could amend the WAB at a later date to avoid the need for a meaningful vote altogether in the final stages of the Brexit process.
Will the ‘second reading’ of the WAB pass?
It is certainly possible. Careful reading of the way MPs voted on the Letwin amendment suggested Mr Johnson could win a second reading vote on the WAB by a slim margin. By remaining vague over whether he would ask for an extension to Article 50 of the EU exit process, Mr Johnson would also compound MPs’ fears that the alternative to backing his pact was a no-deal Brexit.
But many MPs will resist the idea of restricting debate on such a complex and important piece of legislation as the WAB to an October 31 deadline. They will want longer. And if Mr Johnson is forced into a three-month Article 50 extension, the WAB could be debated until well into the new year.
Where does this leave possible outcomes?
The chances of no-deal Brexit on October 31 still looks quite remote. This is because Mr Johnson is almost certain to lose any legal challenge over his need to abide by the Benn Act. Once he loses, the EU will not refuse an extension to Article 50 because it does not want to be blamed for no-deal.
Those demanding a second referendum are in a slightly stronger position, too. This is because Saturday’s setback for Mr Johnson adds to the sense of confusion over Brexit and potentially opens up the prime minister’s deal to more scrutiny.
Mr Johnson could still take the UK out of the EU by October 31, but what does seem to be receding is the chance of a general election before Christmas. It is increasingly likely that parliament will be sitting well into November, leaving too little time for a December election.