On Saturday morning, there was supposed to be a vote on whether to ratify support for the final divorce plan that Boris Johnson has agreed with the European Union. However, these plans were scuppered by a late proposal from Oliver Letwin (who, last month, was removed from the Conservative Party for supporting the Benn Act – the legal charter that now guides this exit process).
Mr Letwin suggested that Parliament should not approve the deal until the necessary legislation had been passed to enact it. His proposal aims to allow the UK to enact Boris’ plan while, critically, avoiding an accidental ‘crashing out’ of the EU without proper plan and legal guidance. The amendment enjoyed support of the House of Commons in a vote that passed 322 to 306.
In an initial reaction to this vote, Boris Johnson made a statement saying "I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so… Further delay will be bad for this country."
He appeared irritable in the press conference after the session, perhaps understandably in light of the jeopardy this delay brings to his plan to deliver the deal by 31st October. The deal isn’t dead, however; it can yet be achieved. Much of the rhetoric around the amendment focuses on a desire to vote for the deal without an undercurrent of worry that they wouldn’t be able to actually deliver it due to the current tight timescales.
Boris Johnson’s insistence that he need not supply a letter imploring a delay was incorrect (the Benn Act actually spells this out specifically). So, following the session on Saturday, three letters were sent to the EU relating to an extension of Article 50:
- The first letter: the legally mandated request for a three-month delay to Brexit (Boris Johnson did not sign this letter).
- The second letter: a letter from Tim Barrow – which discusses the reason for the first letter.
- The third letter: a letter from Boris Johnson arguing against the first letter, i.e. that he doesn’t want an extension.
Johnson sent a further letter to MPs asking them to back his deal.
So what happens now?
The EU will review the letter from Boris Johnson to extend the deadline, which requires an agreement among the 27 nations in the bloc. This process does not have a specified timeframe. If the EU declines to grant a delay, then 31stOctober remains the last date to either get the necessary legislation in place to pass a deal, or leave without a deal.
If the UK votes for a deal but cannot put the legislation in place, the result will be a no deal.
Many expect a general election to go ahead after the Brexit date but it is not clear when this might happen. It would require MPs to vote for an early election. If Brexit is delayed, there is a chance that a vote on having a general election might be brought forward – though this requires a majority agreement in the House of Commons, which has not been achieved in previous votes on the matter. There is also a possibility that Boris Johnson could bring about a vote of no confidence on his own government in order to force an election. If he wins, he could then press on with the plans.
Lastly, there are two more options: a further referendum on Brexit itself, or a full cancellation. However, given where things are at the time of writing, these options seem unlikely.
The effect of the delay on GBP has been muted so far, with only a slight pull back of the strength seen last week. It appears there is significant sentiment pointing at the delivery of a Brexit deal.
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