Brexit: The beginning of the end? It’s not even the end of the beginning

Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, we have passed no legislation, with the exception of the Domestic Abuse Bill. Our Parliament simply isn’t working. It’s not functioning.

Yesterday, we heard from Jean-Claude Juncker there was no need for an extension, since we have a deal. France’s Macron also indicated they’d say ‘non’ to any request to wait until January 2020 for the final exit.[UPDATE: BREAKING NEWS: Macron has apparently spoken to Downing Street to confirm the EU would not allow an extension, see end of article for source]. We discovered Johnson needed 320 MPs to pass the deal and that Parliament would sit on a Saturday for the first time in 37 years.

Gearing up for ‘Super Saturday’

Yet, last night, news broke that Sir Oliver Letwin, Tory MP for Dorset West, had tabled an amendment to automatically trigger the Benn Act; the act that compels Boris Johnson to request an extension from the EU this evening. It withholds the approval of the deal until legislation is passed to allow for the implementation of the deal.

Today, MP after MP stood up and gave their opinions. With no consensus, whatsoever. With the People’s March raging outside, they stood and passionately argued their cases for and against the deal, for and against leaving the EU.

As many different Brexit ‘types’ as there are people

Commentators stated their reservations on the deal – they were concerned the deal would bring huge damage to our manufacturing businesses and complained it was an extremely weak deal in particular for services, which make up around 80% of our economy.

Sir Keir Starmer, Shadow Exiting the EU Secretary made an impassioned speech opposing the deal and compared it – unfavourably – to May’s original Withdrawal Agreement, stating that several important clauses had been removed, wholesale. He drew particular attention to the clause in May’s deal talking about keeping workers’ rights “as close as possible” to EU rights and made it clear there was no need to “change the rules” in order to make worker rights better than the conditions stipulated by the European Union. Only in order to degrade them, was that necessary.

He echoed other MP’s passionate pleas to their fellow MPs to vote against the deal, calling it a “race to the bottom” for workers’ rights.

Labour ‘rebels’

However, many Labour MPs seemed not to really buy into that argument, especially those who represented Leave-voting constituencies. One, Caroline Flint, called the Letwin amendment a “panic measure” and accused those who engineered the Benn Act and the Letwin amendment of wanting to stop Brexit entirely.

Gareth Snell, another Labour MP, who represents Stoke, one of the areas with the highest percentage of Vote Leavers, indicated he intended to vote for the deal, too.

The parliamentary intrigue continued, with Sir Oliver Letwin standing to explain why he tabled his amendment, stating that it was to keep in place the insurance policy provided by the Benn Act to stop ‘no deal’ becoming a reality. He said it stopped the chilling effect of the choice that the government was presenting – to vote for the new deal or to crash out with no deal, given the impending deadline of Oct 31.

Critics of Letwin described the amendment as “well-meaning idiocy” and Letwin as a “clever fool”.

Ian Blackford, SNP Westminster Leader, called the deal “devastating” for Scotland and said the country was being “shafted”.

For me, two of the most interesting contributions came from Peter Kyle, Labour MP for Hove and Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Stand out contributions

Peter Kyle tabled an amendment for a confirmatory referendum, to put the final deal to the people who voted to leave in the first place. He held aloft the two agreements, stating that Teresa May had come to the House of Commons indicating that the agreement represented the will of the people. Yet now Boris Johnson came with a second, different one, saying that did too – so how can they both represent the will of the people? He believed the only way to break the impasse – to dissolve the gridlock – was to go back to the people.

Gove’s contribution was fascinating – after all the talk of disagreement and arguing, his tone was far more diplomatic. He argued that everyone’s opinion on whether to leave or to stay, at heart, comes from a place of patriotism. That we are all arguing in favour of what we think is right and in the best interest of the country. Having never been a fan of Gove, his description of both leavers and remainers provided a little salve to the violence of opinion in the room.

Super Saturday becomes a damp squib

Today, Letwin’s amendment passed, with 322 to 306 votes. 231 of them were Labour along with all 10 DUP MPs, 19 Lib Dems, 35 SNP members, 17 independent MPs, 4 from Welsh Plaid Cymru and finally Independent Group for Change had 5 MPs who voted for the Letwin amendment, plus the one Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

Boris Johnson’s response from the dispatch box was resolute, however. “I will not negotiate a delay”, he said “and nor does the law force me to.”

Indeed, the subsequent tweet from the Conservatives stated:
“Parliament has voted to delay Brexit again. The Prime Minister will not ask for a delay — he will tell EU leaders there should be no more delays and we should get Brexit done on October 31st with our new deal so the country can move on.”

Bercow’s role

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the Commons, announced in the House of Commons, shortly after the Letwin agreement passed, that the motion to vote on the new deal would happen on Monday, throwing the whole House into uproar as he then turned on his heel and walked out again, no longer wishing to hear the protests of the House.

What is clear, now, is that next week is likely to be even more explosive than this week was – it is now the job of the Speaker to pronounce on exactly what happens next.

Bercow will have to decide on whether the motion to approve the deal is substantively the same motion that was put forward today and essentially, whether it is ‘orderly’ or not for the government to put forward the motion again, given it was not decided, because of the Letwin amendment?

Setting the question again

The Kyle-Wilson amendment on a confirmatory referendum was not put forward again after the Letwin Amendment passed, but another, from Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson, to amend the Queen’s Speech, has been brought. The DUP will now come into play again, as their Westminster Leader, Nigel Dodds, has indicated that he will allow his party to consider all the amendments tabled.

The addition of the border to the Irish Sea, something Boris Johnson had previously told the DUP that no Conservative Prime Minister would ever even consider, looks to have worked against him. The Unionist party position looks to be increasingly that they’d rather ensure that Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, than leave the EU. So Tuesday evening could herald the arrival of a new referendum coming our way and, then, who knows what will happen? The question then will be, what form will the question take and what the alternative to the Boris Johnson Withdrawal Bill will be on the ballot paper. Revoke or No Deal?

Questions to ponder for the weekend

And what will Boris Johnson do? Will he write to the EU to request an extension by 11pm tonight or face the legal challenge and consequences? Will the EU deny or allow an extension? When will they return their verdict on extend or no extend? Would Johnson rather resign than write that letter? Can someone else write it?

Will the UK actually ever leave the EU or will we continue to extend and extend until we’re eventually not even completely sure how the ritual started and why we do it? Perhaps every year we’ll ask again, as part of the ceremonial tradition, pomp and grandour of the State Opening of parliament. It might become as normal and simultaneously bizarre and anachronistic as the Lady or Gentleman Usher of Black Rod having the door slammed in their face.

Only time will tell.

UPDATE 2: Further breaking news, The Guardian believes that the EU will indeed grant an extension if one is requested, according to their latest article.

The Daily Express say that they have heard via AFP that Macron has refused an extension in their headline “Macron tells Boris Johnson ‘the EU will not grant Brexit extension’ – crushes Remain hopes” but their article was changed an hour after publication to the toned-down statement that he “told AFP an extension to Article 50 is “in nobody’s interest”.

AFP does not carry this news, currently.

UPDATE: BREAKING NEWS: France’s Macron has apparently called Downing Street to tell them that the EU will not agree to an extension.

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