In major blow to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, UK lawmakers voted on Saturday to postpone a decision on whether to back his Brexit deal with the European Union (EU), throwing a wrench into government plans to leave the bloc at the end of this month.
The prime minister is now required by law to ask the EU to delay Britain’s departure, currently scheduled for October 31. But a defiant Johnson said he still aimed to meet the deadline and would not “negotiate” a postponement with the EU. The bloc said it would wait to hear from the British government about what it wanted to do next.
At a rare weekend sitting of Parliament, lawmakers voted 322-306 to withhold their approval on the Brexit deal until legislation to implement it has been passed.
The vote aims to ensure that the UK cannot crash out of the EU without a divorce deal on the scheduled departure date. Johnson, who struck the agreement with the EU earlier this week, said he was not “daunted or dismayed” by the result and would push ahead.
He implied he would request a three-month delay as required but argued against any postponement.
“I will not negotiate a delay with the EU and neither does the law compel me to do so,” Johnson said. “I will tell our friends and colleagues in the EU exactly what I’ve told everyone in the last 88 days that I’ve served as prime minister: that further delay would be bad for this country, bad for the European Union and bad for democracy.”
Parliament’s first weekend sitting since the Falklands War of 1982 had been dubbed “Super Saturday”. It looked set to bring Britain’s Brexit saga to a head, more than three years after the country’s divisive decision to leave the EU.
But the government’s hopes were derailed when House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said he would allow a vote on an amendment that puts the vote on the deal off until another day.
The amendment makes support for the deal conditional on the legislation to implement it being passed by Parliament, something that could take several days or weeks. It also gives lawmakers another chance to scrutinise – and possibly change- the Brexit departure terms while the legislation is passing through Parliament.
The government still hopes it can pass the needed legislation by the end of the month so the UK can leave on time.
The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said the government would hold a debate Monday on its Brexit-implementing legislation – effectively a second attempt to secure approval for the deal.
It’s unclear whether that would be allowed under House of Commons rules against holding repeated votes on the same question. Bercow said he would make a ruling on Monday.
Opposition lawmakers warned that Johnson must ask for the Brexit extension or face legal consequences.
“Any failure of a prime minister who thinks he is above the law – well, prime minister, you’ll find yourself in court,” said Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party.
There was drama both inside Parliament and outside, where tens of thousands of anti-Brexit demonstrators marched to Parliament Square, demanding a new referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU or remain. Protesters, many wearing blue berets emblazoned with yellow stars symbolising the EU flag, poured out of subway trains and buses for the last-ditch effort.
Bruce Nicole, an Anglican vicar from Camberley southwest of London, said the Brexit deal would harm Britain.
“I fervently believe that we should remain in the EU,” he said. “I am British, but I am also European.”
Inside Parliament, Johnson implored legislators to ratify the deal with the bloc’s 27 other leaders. He said members of the House of Commons should “come together as democrats to end this debilitating feud” over Brexit, which has bitterly divided the country since British voters narrowly chose in a 2016 vote to leave the EU.
“Now is the time for this great House of Commons to come together … as I believe people at home are hoping and expecting,” Johnson told lawmakers.
Johnson called any delay to Britain’s Brexit departure date “pointless, expensive and deeply corrosive of public trust”. And he warned Saturday that the bloc’s approval could not be guaranteed.
“There is very little appetite among our friends in the EU for this business to be protracted by one extra day,” Johnson said. “They have had three and a half years of this debate.”
EU leaders have made the same point. French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday that “the October 31 date must be respected. I don’t believe new delays should be granted”.
The EU was guarded in its response to Saturday’s vote.
“It will be for the UK government to inform us about the next steps as soon as possible,” EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva tweeted.
???????? @EU_Commission takes note of the vote in the House of Commons today on the so-called #Letwin Amendment meaning that the #WithdrawalAgreement itself was not put to vote today. It will be for the UK government to inform us about the next steps as soon as possible.
Mina Andreeva (@Mina_Andreeva) October 19, 2019
When push comes to shove, the EU seems likely to grant an extension if needed to avoid a disruptive no-deal Brexit.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country saw the vote as a delay, rather than a rejection of the Brexit deal. For EU leaders, avoiding a chaotic, no-deal Brexit should be the “top priority”, he said in a tweet.
Poland welcomes today’s @HouseofCommons vote not as a rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement but as postponement of its acceptance. We will support a positive approach on EU level to @BorisJohnson government proposal. Avoiding chaotic, no-deal #brexit should be our top priority.
Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) October 19, 2019
And the European Parliament’s chief Brexit official, Guy Verhofstadt, noted that time was now tight to get the deal approved by the EU legislature before October 31, meaning a short delay might be needed.
If Parliament approves the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in time, Britain could still leave by the end of October. The government plans to introduce the bill next week and could hold late-night sittings of Parliament in hope of getting it passed within days.
Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, failed three times to get lawmakers behind her Brexit plan.
His hopes of getting the deal through Parliament were dealt a blow when his Northern Ireland ally, the Democratic Unionist Party, said it would not back him. The party says Johnson’s Brexit package – which carves out special status for Northern Ireland to keep an open border with EU member Ireland – is bad for the region and weakens its bonds with the rest of the UK.
To make up for the votes of 10 DUP lawmakers, Johnson has tried to persuade members of the left-of-center Labour Party to support the deal. Late Friday the government promised to bolster protections for the environment and workers’ rights to allay Labour fears that the Conservative government plans to slash those protections after Brexit.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed those promises as inadequate.
“This deal is not good for jobs, damaging for industry and a threat to our environment and natural world,” he said. “Supporting the government this afternoon would merely fire the starting pistol in a race to the bottom in regulations and standards.”