Boris Johnson’s plan to push through a Brexit deal on Saturday looked likely to be frustrated after an alliance ofLaborand former Tory MPs united behind a plan to force a new extension.
After clinching a last-minute deal in Brussels on Thursday by agreeing to a customs border in the Irish Sea, the prime minister had hoped to framethe rare Saturday sitting of parliamentas a dramatic “new deal or no deal” moment.
But despite positive reactions from Bank of England governorMark Carneyand declarations of support from several Labor MPs, Johnson’s plans were rocked on Friday by a cross-party group led by Oliver Letwin and Hilary Benn.
The Conservative and Labor MPs will table an amendment allowing parliament to withhold its approval until the legislation to implementBrexithas passed. )
With Labor expected to back it, as well as rebel Conservatives includingPhilip Hammondand David Gauke, it appears likely to pass.
Letwin has insisted that his plan is not to block a deal. But the move would mean that even if Johnson secured the support of a majority of MPs, he would fail to pass the test set by the Benn act for Brexit to go ahead by 31 October, which sets a deadline of 11 pm on Saturday.
The prime minister would then be legally obliged to request an extension from the EU 27 – something he has repeatedly insisted he will not do.
Johnson would not need to make use of the extension, if he could pilot his Brexit bill through all its parliamentary stages before 31 October. But it would decisively remove the risk of a no-deal Halloween Brexit.
News of the amendment came as a serious blow to Johnson, with strategists meeting on Friday night to try to decide how to respond if it passed.
Despite the fact that several of its supporters repeatedly backed Theresa May’s deal – unlike Johnson himself – No 10 sources sought to claim it was a thinly-veiled bid to block Brexit.
“We can all see what this is about,” one said. “It’s being exploited by a bunch of people who are finding ever more inventive ways of not delivering on Brexit. They are not prepared to vote for a deal. ”
Downing Street has repeatedly insisted it will comply with the law – but also that Johnson is determined to leave on 31 October, come what may. If he fails to send the letter, or seeks to frustrate the law in any other way, he is likely to face a legal challenge.
Meanwhile, as the scramble to win the knife-edge vote unfolded on Friday, several Labor MPs and previously unreconciled Tory Brexiters declared their backing for the agreement. But the numbers for and against Johnson’s deal appeared too close to call.
Melanie Onn, the Labor MP for Grimsby, was one of several whoannounced they were prepared to support a deal, in the face of intense pressure from senior party figures to reject it.
In an article for the Guardian, written with Conservative MP Victoria Prentis, Onn said that the pair intended “to implore our colleagues touse this unique chance to help us move on, and get back to helping our constituents ”.
“The risk of letting this final shot at a deal slip through our fingers is too great,” the pair add. “Our collective hope rests on braveLaborMPs, and indeed others, who can see that.”
Tensions among political leaders ratcheted up ahead of Saturday’s vote as the Scottish National party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, pointed the finger at the Labor leader for not being tough enough in opposing Johnson’s deal.
Sturgeon accused Jeremy Corbyn of presiding over an atmosphere within Labor where his MPs believe that if they defy the three-line whip and back the PM, they will not face any consequences like being ejected from the parliamentary party.
She said: “My growing suspicion is that Labor will allowBoris Johnsonto get his deal over the line.
“It seems to me that it is possible we have a situation where Labor have an official position of opposing this deal but are giving nods and winks to so-called Labor rebels in the hope that there’s enough of them that allow it over the line. ”
Meanwhile, Carney used a US television appearance to say that the deal agreed between London and Brussels would boost growth and could be a turning point for the global economy.
In an interview with Bloomberg TV in Washington, he said: “It is good news that there is an agreement. I would expect the economy to pick up from quite a subdued pace. ”
Carney said the EU referendum had been the start of a period of trade uncertainty that had caused the global economy to slow. “The UK may have led the world into this and we may be leading the world out of this,” he said.
Labor has vehemently rejected Johnson’s deal. Keir Starmer warned that it would “pave the way for a decade of deregulation” and “give Johnson license to slash workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protections ”.
The scope for the Letwin amendment to succeed will partly be framed by the response of European leaders. Jean-Claude Juncker suggested in Brussels on Thursday that a request for an extension could be rejected –but other senior EU figures did not follow his lead.
If the amendment passes, instead of a yes or no to Johnson’s Brexit deal, MPs would then be given the opportunity of voting on the amended motion – which would say they have not yet approved the deal.
Some of those backing the idea, including Letwin, would like to support Johnson’s deal, but had become alarmed that it could pass on Saturday – allowing Johnson to escape the strictures of the backbench Benn act – but then fall at a later stage in the ratification process, leading to a no-deal Brexit.
The move came as Johnson and his teamlaunched a charm offensive, aimed at tempting potential waverers from across the political spectrum to support his agreement, which paves the way for a significantly looser future relationship with the EU.
Labor MPs hinted they had been offered assurances that the government is not preparing to slash workers ’rights and environmental protections, if the deal is passed.
These would be expected to be written into the withdrawal agreement legislation, which is likely to be tabled by the government on Monday.
If the vote on Johnson’s deal goes ahead without any amendments, the decision could be agonisingly tight, with the decisions of the handful of MPs yet to indicate a preference possibly swinging the decisions.
With the threshold needed for a Commons majority of 320, once Sinn Féin MPs and the Speaker and his deputies are excluded, a Guardian tally of the two sides put them virtually neck and neck.
A key constituency yet to declare was pro-deal Labor MPs informally led by Caroline Flint, who have been heavily courted by No 10. Some reports suggested she might have won concessions from the government on workers ’rights, a key sticking point.
These calculations would be completely different if the Letwin amendment was to pass, with a series of potential opponents sufficiently reassured to back the government plan.
However, on the other side of the equation, some hardline Tory Brexiters might become more wary of supporting a plan which would inevitably require another Brexit extension.
Johnson told the BBC: “There’s no better outcome than the one I’m advocating tomorrow.”
Urging MPs to support him, he said: “I just kind of invite everybody to imagine what it could be like tomorrow evening, if we have settled this, and we have respected the will of the people, because we will then have a chance to to move on. ”
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