Boris Johnson won the backing of MPs for his Brexit deal on Tuesday night in a landmark vote in the House of Commons, but a snap election was back on the agenda after MPs derailed his attempt to take Britain out of the EU on October 31.
European Council president Donald Tusk proposed offering Mr Johnson a Brexit extension until January 31, after MPs voted against Mr Johnson’s plan to railroad his exit legislation through the Commons in time for the Halloween deadline.
But Mr Johnson’s allies said the prime minister would push for a general election rather than face further delays, putting pressure on Labour to either back an early poll or agree a tight new timetable to pass the Brexit legislation.
Mr Johnson succeeded where his predecessor Theresa May failed three times, as MPs convincingly backed his Brexit deal in principle by voting for the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement bill by 329 to 299.
A total of 19 Labour MPs from Leave areas joined independents and hardline Eurosceptic Tories to form a ramshackle pro-deal coalition, which delivered a bigger-than-expected majority of 30 for Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement bill.
But the prime minister’s attempt to ram the bill through parliament in time for his “do or die” Brexit deadline was rebuffed by MPs, who want more time to scrutinise the legislation. MPs rejected the so-called programme motion by 322 votes to 308.
The defeat on the “timetable motion” for the bill means that Mr Johnson will almost certainly miss his Halloween Brexit deadline; it also made it harder for the prime minister to make a dash to the polls in a pre-Christmas general election.
Donald Tusk, the EU Council president, said he would “recommend” that EU leaders accept the UK’s request to delay the Brexit deadline until January 31 2020. This could be shortened if Britain ratified the exit deal at an earlier date.
Mr Johnson allies claimed that parliament had blown “its last chance” and that MPs would now have to explain the latest Brexit delay to voters in a general election.
“This parliament is broken,” said one ally of Mr Johnson. “If parliament’s delay is agreed by Brussels, then the only way the country can move on is with an election.”
Mr Johnson has tried twice without success to call an election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, he would need two-thirds of MPs to back a motion calling for an early election. Labour, trailing the Tories in the polls, has so far refused to back an election.
Alternatively Mr Johnson could call a vote of no confidence in himself. He could lose such a vote on a simple majority, but there would then be a 14-day period during which another person could try to form an alternative government.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, is now under pressure to back an election which he might lose or, alternatively, strike a deal with Mr Johnson on a truncated Commons timetable to enact his Brexit legislation.
Mr Johnson said that it was “welcome, even joyful” that MPs had voted for the first time for a Brexit deal, but added he was “disappointed” that his breakneck dash to receive Commons approval for the legislation had been thwarted.
He said he would “pause the legislation” to see how the EU responded to what he said was parliament’s request for more time. “One way or another, we will leave the EU with this deal,” he added.
The January extension request was made in a letter that Mr Johnson sent to Mr Tusk on Saturday after the prime minister failed to secure MPs’ backing for his Brexit deal by October 19, and legislation required him to ask for a delay.
Mr Johnson’s allies had threatened to pull the legislation and hold an election if the EU proposed an extension of more than 10 days. They also want Brussels to make it clear that any extension is a one-off and cannot be rolled over.
“That won’t happen, so in practice we’ll be pulling the bill,” said one ally. However other Downing Street insiders insisted that Mr Johnson should stick with the legislation and deliver Brexit, albeit with a delay. “We have come this far,” said another aide.
Previous Brexit delays granted by the EU were designed in a way that would have allowed Britain to leave before the new exit deadline day, if the UK were ready to do so. When EU leaders agreed in April to delay Brexit to October 31, they said that the prolongation “should last only as long as necessary.”
EU diplomats said that the same approach could be used this time, respecting the date that Britain has already requested, while leaving the door firmly open to an earlier exit.
“Prime minister Johnson has already asked for an extension until January 31, 2020,” noted one EU diplomat. “So there will potentially be enough time for the prime minister to consider a way forward and for the UK parliament to scrutinise the agreement.”
“It is difficult to understand why the prime minister wants to press the pause button when we thought he wanted to get Brexit done,” the diplomat said.
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