UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has on Monday been denied a second attempt to ram his European Union divorce deal through the Parliament of the United Kingdom and avoid the political damage of delaying Brexit.
Johnson’s bid to win approval from MPs was cut short as John Bercow, the House of Commons Speaker, blocked the legislative effort, pointing out that the same business could not be brought twice to a vote in one parliamentary session. Johnson will try again on Tuesday, bringing the full legislation needed for his Brexit deal to Parliament.
“The motion will not be debated today because it would be repetitive and disorderly to do so,” Bercow said.
“Today’s motion is in substance the same as Saturday’s motion and the House has decided the matter.”
Conservative MP Peter Bone, an ardent Eurosceptic Brexiteer, suggested that the situation was now different, as, on Saturday, “nobody knew whether the prime minister was going to send the letter [to the EU, requesting a Brexit delay, as mandated by law] or not”.
His comments were met with laughter and jeers in the House of Commons.
Bercow replied that the idea “whether a minister of the crown would obey the law – the honest answer to the honourable gentleman – is that that consideration had not entered my mind as pertinent”.
‘Difficult week ahead’
“Once again, John Bercow has thrown a stick in the spokes of the government on its wobbly and accident-prone bicycle ride towards Brexit,” said Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Westminster.
“Now the government can’t get the momentum it wants to have as it heads into a very difficult week. It cannot prove it has the numbers behind its Brexit deal with the EU – what it has to do now is table this Withdrawal Agreement bill, which is going to have a hugely difficult time getting through in its naked state, without amendments.”
Another momentous week in the tortuous saga could yet end with Johnson finally engineering a divorce from Brussels that breaks many of the island nation’s economic relations with Europe built over the past 46 years.
Alternatively, by the end of this week, he may have been forced to concede and to push for a general election to break the impasse in Parliament.
British legislators dealt a blow to Johnson’s Brexit plan at the weekend by refusing to give their backing to his revised withdrawal agreement until the legislation needed to ratify it has passed.
“The vote on Saturday means that the battlefield over the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement has been moved to Tuesday, when the Parliament will be discussing and voting on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill,” said Nikos Skoutaris, EU law lecturer at the University of East Anglia.
“This session is expected to be particularly problematic for the government as there might be a majority in Parliament in favour of a much closer relationship with the EU than the one adopted in Boris Johnson’s deal. If that happens, the efforts of the current prime minister to achieve Brexit on 31 October could be seriously frustrated.”
Johnson’s rivals in Parliament are now forging new alliances and trying to attach amendments that could either force Johnson to accept closer trade ties – or abandon the deal and accept a third delay this year.
The option of extending the three-and-a-half year crisis past the October 31 deadline is now in the hands of the 27 remaining EU member states.
Johnson, who took office promising to deliver Brexit on schedule, was mandated in legislation known as the Benn Act passed by UK legislators – including a “rebel alliance” of 21 Conservative MPs who were subsequently kicked out of the party – to send a letter to Brussels asking for more time.
The British leader ended up sending three letters on Saturday night. The only one he actually signed said an “extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners” and that he was firmly against it.
The manoeuvre was designed to minimise the political damage of Johnson going back on his word and seeking an extension ahead of an early general election most expect in the coming months.
The top civil court in Scotland on Monday considered whether Johnson’s request broke the law, and an undertaking his administration made to the court not to frustrate the Benn Act.
The Court of Sessions in Edinburgh ruled against the government’s request to throw out the case, and while the court said the signed letter did not undermine the request for a delay – essentially carrying no legal weight at all – it would continue to monitor the situation to ensure the prime minister abided by the law.
Johnson’s first effort to get parliamentary backing for the deal he sealed against heavy odds last Thursday in Brussels was scuttled at a very rare Saturday sitting of MPs.
Legislators pushed through an amendment obliging Johnson to ask for an extension until the British legislation governing the withdrawal is drafted and passed.
The step was designed to cut off the possibility of Johnson following through on his repeated threat to take Britain out at any cost at the end of the month.
Analysts said the process – even when fast-tracked – would normally take several weeks.
The deck seems stacked against Johnson.
The main opposition Labour Party is trying to create a cross-party alliance that would back Johnson’s deal on the condition that it is fixed to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU.
Johnson and his supporters say this would kill the point of Brexit by keeping Britain tied to Europe and unable to strike its own trade deals with powers such as China and the United States.
Labour is trying to create a quick marriage of convenience with Johnson’s nominal allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The DUP broke ranks and voted against Johnson’s agreement on Saturday because it created new trade regulations for goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A customs union would avoid that.
The Brexit-supporting DUP appeared open to the suggestion after rejecting another amendment backed by Labour that would put up any eventual deal for a confirmatory referendum.
Hundreds of thousands rallied in London on Saturday demanding a second national vote on Brexit that could overturn the 2016 EU referendum’s results.