If the last three years has taught the British public anything, it’s that, when it comes to Brexit, twists and turns are practically inevitable.
This week prime minister Boris Johnson managed to secure a Brexit deal with the EU, surprising many, and he had a real shot at winning Parliament’s backing for it this afternoon. Then came an amendment by Oliver Letwin—a former Conservative MP who Johnson recently expelled from the party, along with 20 others.
Parliament voted in favor of Letwin’s amendment today, which automatically triggers an earlier bill, the Benn Act, that forces Johnson to send a letter tonight to the EU requesting a Brexit extension until Jan. 31.
So, what happens next?
Letter of the law
Most experts see the Benn Act as watertight. If Johnson does not comply, he is expected to end up in court next week. Lawyers are already drafting proceedings against the prime minister, in that event.
It’s possible the court itself could sign and send the letter on his behalf, the wording of which is even stipulated by the Act.
Given that the prime minister’s hands are tied over the letter, his other method to deliver on his Brexit promise of Oct. 31 “do or die, come what may” is to win support for his deal in Parliament and get it implemented in time. That requires securing support in the House, the Lords, and then receiving the Queen’s royal assent.
It’s a tall order. The Conservatives no longer have a working majority in Parliament. And the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, which has propped up the government since the 2017 election, today voted for the Letwin amendment—and is furious over the terms of Johnson’s Brexit deal.
The opposition strikes, again?
The leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has said the government will bring forward a vote on the Brexit deal on Monday. But even here, speaker of the House John Bercow must first rule on whether he’ll allow a vote then.
After the Letwin amendment passed today, the government pulled the Brexit-deal vote that was expected to follow. The opposition could now get the opportunity next week to attach amendments to the deal to scupper Johnson’s plans. Among them are possible measures to force a second referendum, or compel the prime minister, in later stages of negotiation, to push for the UK’s continued membership in the EU customs union under a new free trade deal. MPs might also try to set a longer parliamentary timetable to ensure Brexit does not occur on Oct. 31.
On top of all this, the Queen’s speech was held this week laying out the government’s legislative agenda. A vote on that agenda is expected next week—and without a majority of MPs, Johnson could lose it (the sort of defeat that typically prompts UK leaders to resign). The opposition Labour party could then call for a no-confidence vote.
Johnson losing a confidence vote would add further pressure to call a general election, with all the major parties expected to campaign on their Brexit visions. For these reasons, it’s likely the government would push back a vote on the Queen’s speech until after Parliament debates the Brexit deal.
And the EU?
Ambassadors from the bloc’s member states will meet tomorrow to discuss an extension. Though some officials have suggested they would decline a delay, that seems unlikely. It still also remains possible that they’ll opt for a different date than Jan. 31, but the UK parliament would then need to vote to approve it.
Taken together, all the moving parts indicate it’s not so easy, more than three years after the June 2016 referendum, to (in Johnson’s words) “get Brexit done.” That’s even with a stretch of last-minute negotiations with the EU, and Parliament sitting on a Saturday for the first time in 37 years, as happened today.
That hundreds of thousands marched today to Parliament Square, calling for a second referendum, also shows that millions of Brits will likely be left reeling, whatever the final Brexit outcome.