LONDON – For a brief moment Tuesday, Brexit was within a British prime minister’s grasp.
Boris Johnson won Parliament’s backing for the substance of his exit deal but lost a key vote on its timing, a result that inches him closer to his goal of leading his country out of the European Union – but effectively guarantees it won’t happen on the scheduled date of Oct. 31.
European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that because of the vote he would recommend that the other 27 EU nations grant Britain a delay in its departure to avoid a chaotic no-deal exit in just nine days.
The good news for the prime minister was that lawmakers – for the first time since Britons chose in 2016 to leave the EU – voted in principle for a Brexit plan, backing by 329-299 a bill to implement the agreement Johnson struck with the EU last week.
But minutes later, legislators rejected his fast-track timetable to pass the bill, saying they needed more time to scrutinize it. The vote went 322-308 against the government.
Tuesday’s votes plunge the tortuous Brexit process back into grimly familiar territory: acrimonious uncertainty.
Without speedy passage of the bill, Britain won’t be able to make an orderly exit from the bloc on Oct. 31, the central vow of Johnson’s three-month-old administration.
Looking on the bright side, Johnson hailed the fact that “for the first time in this long saga this House has actually accepted its responsibilities together, come together, and embraced a deal.”
“One way or another we will leave the EU with this deal to which this House has just given its assent,” he said – though he also said the government would “accelerate” preparations for a no-deal outcome because of the uncertainty.
Johnson had hoped to push the legislation through the House of Commons by Thursday. But he said after the defeat that he would “pause” the bill until the EU had decided whether to agree to delay Britain’s departure.
On Tuesday night, Tusk said in a tweet that he would recommend that the bloc grant Britain’s request for an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline. He did not say how long a delay he would recommend, although the UK’s request was to postpone exit until Jan. 31.
That request came grudgingly from Johnson last week to comply with a law passed by Parliament ordering the government to postpone Brexit rather than risk the economic damage that could come from a no-deal exit.
Any delay will still require the agreement of all of the other 27 EU member states, and they are deeply weary of the long-running Brexit saga. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French lawmakers Tuesday that he sees “no justification” at this stage for a further delay.
But they also want to avoid the economic pain on both sides of the Channel that would come from a chaotic British exit.
Earlier, Johnson had said he might call a vote on holding a snap general election if Parliament blocked his plans – in the hopes of breaking the political deadlock over Brexit that has dragged on as lawmakers have squabbled over the country’s departure terms. But he’s likely to wait to hear from the EU on the delay request before deciding whether to push for an election.
But before Tuesday’s vote, he said: “I will in no way allow months more of this.”
Last week Johnson struck a divorce deal with the other EU leaders, but on Saturday he failed to win Parliament’s backing for it. His only remaining hope of leaving on time was to get lawmakers to pass the Brexit-implementing bill into law before the scheduled departure date, nine days away.
The Brexit deal sets out the terms of Britain’s departure, including measures to maintain an open border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. It also enshrines the right of UK and EU citizens living in the other’s territory to continue with their lives, and sets out the multibillion dollar payments Britain must make to meet its financial obligations to the EU.
But the deal does not cover the nitty gritty of future relations between the UK and the EU: Instead, it confirms a transition period lasting until at least the end of 2020 – and possibly 2022 – in which relations will remain frozen as they are now while a permanent new relationship is worked out.
If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, there will be no transition period, uncertainty for millions of citizens and a host of new tariffs, customs checks and other barriers to trade on Day 1. Most economists say that would send unemployment rising, the value of the pound plummeting and plunge the UK into recession.
Many lawmakers felt that three days was not nearly enough time for scrutiny of the 115-page bill. Major bills usually take weeks or months to pass through Parliament, giving time for line-by-line scrutiny by lawmakers.
Before Tuesday’s votes, Green lawmaker Caroline Lucas tweeted that lawmakers “had more time to debate the Wild Animals in Circuses Act (affecting 19 animals) than they will to decide the future of 65 million people. It’s hard to think of anything which better illustrates this Govt’s contempt for people, Parliament & democracy.”
After the votes, many lawmakers urged Johnson to push ahead with the bill after securing a delay to Brexit. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn encouraged the prime minister to “work with us all of use to agree a reasonable timetable” for its passage.
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ardent Brexit supporter, acknowledged that the prospect of an Oct. 31 Brexit now seemed remote.
“Impossible is a very strong word, but it is very hard to see how it is possible,” he said.
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