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Brexit: What derailed Boris Johnson’s EU divorce bill – and is it dead?

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons, Saturday October 19, 2019.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons, Saturday October 19, 2019. -
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Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill to take the UK out of the EU was left in limbo after Tuesday’s dramatic votes in the House of Commons.

The prime minister secured an important victory when MPs backed the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in principle, pending further scrutiny. But minutes later they slapped down his government’s attempt to ram the legislation through in three days, rejecting its accelerated timetable.

Johnson reacted by saying he would “pause” the bill and consult EU leaders. They will consider a delay to the October 31 deadline, and the signs are that they will agree.

The question of a general election has been raised once again, although there are also calls for the bill to be given more time in parliament.

The divorce agreement needs the approval of the British and European parliaments to take effect.

What happened on Tuesday?

The prime minister’s plan had already hit a number of obstacles at home since he struck his divorce deal with the EU last week. A vote to approve the accord was delayed in parliament, Johnson was forced against his will to seek an extension, and the House of Commons speaker ruled out another vote on the deal itself.

Read more: British MPs deal blow to October 31 Brexit deadline

What's in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill?

“Second reading” vote

Tuesday saw a debate followed by an initial vote on the 110-page withdrawal bill. In the absence so far of a vote on the deal itself, this was seen as a key decision on whether lawmakers backed the agreement in principle.

The answer was yes: MPs voted for the bill by a majority of 30 – the first time the UK parliament has backed a Brexit deal. However, this was just an early hurdle, giving the bill the green light to pass on to the next stage – a long way from actual ratification.

Programme motion vote

The programme motion set out the planned timetable to get the bill through parliament. Once the first vote was passed, it was put to the vote immediately. It failed by 322 to 308 – a majority of 14.

The government wanted the whole parliamentary process to be completed in just three days – by Friday (October 25) – paving the way for Johnson to meet his Halloween deadline for Brexit itself.

Many MPs had already complained that this fast-track schedule was woefully inadequate, allowing them far too little time to scrutinise the detailed text on such an important issue. In particular, anomalies had been highlighted concerning trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.

The prime minister had threatened during the afternoon to pull the bill altogether and call for an election if his accelerated timetable was rejected. In the end he said in the Commons that he would “pause this legislation”.

The defeat effectively puts an end to the government’s hopes of leaving the EU at Halloween with a deal.

Read more: What's in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill?

Why did Boris Johnson ‘pause’ the bill?

The prime minister repeated his pledge to deliver Brexit on time. “Let me be clear,” he told the Commons. “Our policy remains that we should not delay, that we should leave the EU on 31 October.”

However, his previously resolute commitment to this deadline – “do or die”, “no ifs or buts” – wavered. “One way or another we will leave the EU with this deal,” he said.

The government has defended the decision not to give more time for the bill. Justice minister Robert Buckland said Brexit should still happen at Halloween, as set by the EU. “The date was their choosing back in the spring and we should respect that,” he told Sky News.

Hostile amendments

But although the bill was passed in principle, it would have faced tough examination – and attempts to change it – at the parliamentary committee stage. Amendments were planned to alter the legislation fundamentally, perhaps dealing a fatal blow to Johnson’s plan.

The Labour opposition had identified “a new Customs Union between the UK and the EU”, as a proposal that could “command a majority in the House”, in the words of shadow finance minister John McDonnell. But such a move would amount to a far “softer” Brexit than the one envisaged by Boris Johnson.

An amendment to put the Brexit deal to a second referendum was also likely. Labour says any deal should go back to the people.

It’s thought that opponents of a no-deal Brexit might also have backed changes to prevent an abrupt cliff-edge exit – not on October 31, but at the end of the planned transition period at the end of 2020. Unless a free trade deal or another extension had been agreed, UK-EU trade would revert to World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms – which many economists and in business say would be highly disadvantageous.

Other potential amendments could have included proposals to toughen protection for environmental standards and workers’ rights.

What happens now?

The UK prime minister has already been obliged under the terms of the Benn Act to ask the EU for a three-month Brexit delay, until January 31. The law also means he must accept any EU offer.

The outgoing European Council President Donald Tusk has tweeted that he will recommend the EU27 leaders accept the UK’s request for an extension, without specifying its duration. Their unanimous approval is needed – but though some are known to be reluctant to back another delay, it’s thought an outright refusal would be unlikely.

Boris Johnson is known to want a general election, but his decision to “pause” the bill rather than withdraw it altogether raises questions as to whether it could be revived.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn offered in the House of Commons to work with the government on an altered timetable for the bill – an overture so far ignored.

Labour says it will agree to a general election if the EU grants an extension ruling out a no-deal Brexit.

Read more:

Boris Johnson's difficult week ahead to get his Brexit deal passed

What's in Boris Johnson's Brexit deal with the European Union?

Brexit Guide: Where are we now?

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