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Where are we now? Brexit becomes dog’s dinner.

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Labour plans amendment warfare, but Government still hopes to get deal passed this week
Daniel Capurro By Daniel Capurro, Front Bench Editor
Where are we now? On Saturday, Boris Johnson failed to have a straightforward up-or-down vote on his Brexit deal, after MPs backed the Letwin amendment which withheld Parliament’s official approval until the legislation for the deal had passed. In turn, that forced Johnson to request an extension from the EU, which he did.

The EU is holding fire – more on that in a moment – so the Prime Minister will try again this week to get his deal through. Labour and various parliamentary factions are preparing to stop him.

– Unhelpful support –

The first thing the Government will do is try to hold its meaningful vote again. That hangs on whether the Speaker, John Bercow, allows it. The rules say that an unchanged motion can’t be voted on twice, so he may well say no.

The irony of the Letwin amendment passing on Saturday is that it appeared to show that there was a majority for the deal. Even Sir Oliver Letwin himself claims to support the deal, but says he wanted to close a loophole that could have led to a no-deal exit.

Yet by lessening the immediate threat of no deal, the amendment may weaken the resolve of some Labour rebels. That makes the result of the vote all the more uncertain.

The Government will also introduce the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill today (that’s the legislation for the deal), which could be voted on tomorrow.

First up will be a fight over the timetable. Downing Street wants the legislation done in around a week, which will require evening and weekend sessions. The Commons could simply vote to reject that timetable, thus scuppering the PM’s plans.

The Opposition and rebel MPs are also set to launch guerrilla warfare via amendments. There might be many, but we know of two so far. They’re both sponsored by Labour and could cause serious problems.

– Amendment bonanza –

The first would impose a customs union as a negotiating objective on the Government. The second would attach a confirmatory referendum to the deal. There doesn’t appear to be a majority for the latter, with many of the whipless Tories opposed and several Labour MPs likely to rebel against it.

The former could be a bigger threat, especially if Labour can convince the DUP to back it, which looks like a distinct possibility.

Whether it passes could hang on the Liberal Democrats. Other explicitly Remain parties are expected to vote down the amendment, as it would “enable” Brexit.

However, it’s understood that the Government intends to pull the legislation and opt for an election if it loses on either amendment. So will the Lib Dems put politics above principle and back a customs union?

– All options and none –

Part of Johnson’s trouble comes from the nature of the deal that he has agreed. By removing most of Theresa May’s commitments, the future of Great Britain is left entirely open. We could end up anywhere by the end of the transition period at the end of 2020, including the Norway option or with a no-deal exit.

That meant that Johnson could be all Brexits to all people, but also that someone was going to end up being mis-sold a Brexit they were never going to get.

The PM is now attempting to address that by announcing plans to give Parliament a say on the negotiating mandate for the future relationship negotiations. How that will play with the Brexiteers we’ll see, although they seem fairly convinced of the risk of no Brexit.

– Back to the people –

But what of an election? The Government is briefing that if there is to be one, it needs sorting this week to avoid a December election. That would mean a vote on November 28.

Yet hanging over it all is the question of what the EU will do. Brussels will wait to see what MPs do, before deciding next week on the length of any extension. There are some signs of a split, with the usual suspect, France, making noises about a short extension or none at all. Take those with a pinch of salt.

The deal, which the EU is very happy with, has taken much of the risk out of an extension. They no longer have a British PM threatening to call an election to campaign for no deal. Instead, the only parties with any serious hope of entering government, as leading or junior partners, want either a negotiated Brexit or no Brexit at all.

– Take as long as you need –

The question seems to be only how long to go. In sending his letters to Brussels, Johnson suggested to the EU that they might wish to offer what amounts to a “flextension”. That is, an extension that is cut short as soon as the Brexit deal is ratified.

That appears likely and, if it is the case, could lead European leaders to support the German approach and offer an extension until next summer.


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