If all goes to the prime minister’s plan, Britain’s lower house of parliament, the House of Commons, will debate and sign off on the Brexit withdrawal agreement by Thursday evening. It would be a bold timetable for a government with a comfortable majority, let alone one that falls more than 40 seats short of being able to force legislation through by itself.
The bill itself, stretching past 100 pages, was only published on Monday evening.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson kicked off the process on Tuesdsay with an appeal to the House as debate got underway.
“If we pass this deal and the legislation that enables it, we can turn the page and allow this parliament and this country to begin to heal and unite,” he said. He also said that positive votes for the motions would allow his government to decelerate preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit at the end of the month.
One of the most troublesome early interventions for Johnson came from Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s DUP. An ally to the Conservatives on many issues, the DUP is dissatisfied with the proposed status of Northern Ireland in the government’s current deal. Dodds argued that Northern Ireland would be “de facto” subject to EU customs rules — unlike the rest of the UK — under the deal’s terms. Without DUP support, Johnson’s chances of a majority decline.
Two core votes will be put to the test on Tuesday, and defeat in either one would throw a serious wrench in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans:
1. The ‘second reading’ vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill
The simplest way to look at this vote is as a non-binding statement of intent from Members of Parliament (MPs). It’s their chance to register whether or not they support the agreement in principle. However, they have no obligation to vote the same way in the decisive “third reading” vote that will follow the debates and include any amendments MPs attach to the government’s proposed legislation during the week.
The main opposition party Labour has signaled its intent to vote against the bill at second reading.
Johnson will need about 60 votes beyond those he can count on within his own party and so will be largely reliant on Labour rebels and the former Conservatives he expelled from the party in order to cross the line.
Some of those likely to defy the Labour party line and support the motion, like Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, would argue that they are only really voting for the parliamentary debate and the amendment process to start in earnest.
Amending the bill greatly is not really in Parliament’s power, though. Any changes would need to be tolerable on the European side as well. Johnson’s government has warned that it might pull the final vote altogether if amendments that clear the House of Commons are too extensive.
2. The vote on the government’s three-day timetable — the ‘program motion’
This could prove even more of a challenge to the government than the second reading vote. Several MPs have indicated that while they might support the deal in principle, they have major doubts about ramming the bill through in the next 72 hours.
There’s also a very real risk that government efforts to drum up the decisive support for a quick approval could backfire and put off potential allies.
Ed Vaizey, now a Liberal Democrat but a Conservative MP as recently as September, responded critically to senior Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg’s claim that, “A vote against the program motion is a vote against Brexit.”
“Oh dear. Any more ludicrous tweets like this and I may change my mind and vote against the program motion,” Vaizey said in response.
Oh dear. Any more ludicrous tweets like this and I may change my mind and vote against the programme motion https://t.co/hTHJTKgPQF
— Ed Vaizey (@edvaizey) October 22, 2019
Johnson was asked later in his opening statement by a Scottish National Party MP how he would proceed should the program motion fail, and he appeared to indicate that he would seek an immediate election.
“I will in no way allow months more of this,” Johnson said. “With great regret [if the program motion fails], the bill will have to be pulled and we will have to go forward — much as the honorable gentleman may not like it — to a general election.”
Assuming the UK doesn’t intend to leave the EU without a deal in the midst of an election campaign without a sitting government, and laws are already in place designed to prevent this, holding snap elections would necessitate at least a short extension to the current Brexit deadline of October 31. Johnson has already reluctantly requested this extension from Brussels, with the decision resting with the EU’s other 27 heads of state and government.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, told the European Parliament earlier on Tuesday that Brussels and Strasbourg would wait on developments in Westminster before deciding how to proceed.