Boris Johnson has been forced to send a letter to the European Union asking for another Brexit delay after MPs blocked a vote on his deal — but the prime minister simultaneously asked EU leaders to hold off from granting the extension so he could try again to pass the new withdrawal agreement before the end of the month.
The government sent the EU three letters on Saturday night — the first a photocopy of the extension request it is required to send under the Benn Act, the second a letter from the UK's permanent representative to the EU, Tim Barrow, explaining that Parliament had forced the request, and a third signed by Johnson that asked the EU to not trigger the extension.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, confirmed he had received the extension request.
The letters were sent after the government called an historic Saturday sitting of Parliament, the first since the Falklands War 37 years ago, for a “meaningful vote” to approve the 11th-hour deal Johnson agreed with the EU on Thursday and pave the way for legislation to take Britain out of the bloc on Oct. 31, as he has repeatedly promised.
But the meaningful vote plan was capsized when MPs backed an amendment 322–306 from former Conservative cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin, one of 21 rebels who were stripped of the party whip last month, which withheld approval of the deal until after the withdrawal legislation has been passed.
Letwin, who insists he supports Johnson’s deal, said the amendment was necessary to make sure Britain didn’t crash out of the EU without a deal on Oct. 31 because the necessary legislation had not been passed in time.
Under the terms of the Benn Act, which MPs passed last month to avoid a no-deal Brexit, Johnson must now write to the EU to request an extension to the Article 50 deadline — something the prime minister has consistently vowed not to do, even as the government has given assurances that it will obey the law.
An EU source told BuzzFeed News that, in a phone call at 7:15pm on Saturday, Johnson confirmed to Tusk that the letter requesting an extension would be sent.
Tusk will on that basis start consulting with EU27 leaders on how to react, the source said, in a process that may take a few days.
Addressing MPs after the vote, a defiant Johnson insisted that the law does not require him to "negotiate" a delay.
"I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so. I will tell our friends and colleagues in the EU exactly what I’ve told everyone in the last 88 days that I’ve served as prime minister: that further delay would be bad for this country, bad for the European Union, and bad for democracy," he said.
Later on Saturday, Johnson wrote to MPs saying he would urge the EU to "reject Parliament's request for further delay" or "not take a decision quickly".
Downing Street said the government would make clear to the EU that it does not believe the extension is necessary, because the Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be passed into law before Oct. 31.
EU leaders, including French president Emmanuel Macron and Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested on Friday that an extension shouldn’t be taken for granted, but it’s highly unlikely they will turn down the request.
The government is expected to table the bill on Monday and then hold a meaningful vote on the deal — followed by a race against the clock to get the legislation through Parliament by the end of the month.
The prime minister's official spokesperson told reporters: "If there's a deal which Parliament can support, I think the public would expect Parliament to work all of the hours which are required to get this legislation through."
But the next 10 days are fraught with difficulty for Number 10, as MPs and peers will have the opportunity to scrutinise and amend the legislation, potentially softening the deal, adding a second referendum, or scuppering the chances of it passing by Oct. 31.
Pleading with MPs to reject the amendment and go for a straight vote on his deal, Johnson said: “I must tell the House again in all candour that whatever letters they may seek to force the government to write, it cannot change my judgment that further delay is pointless, expensive, and deeply corrosive of public trust.
“And people simply will not understand how politicians can say with one breath that they want delay to avoid no-deal and then with the next breath that they still want delay when a great deal is there to be done.”
The passing of the Letwin amendment means it remains unclear whether his deal has the support of a majority of MPs. Even before Letwin tabled the amendment, the vote was on a knife-edge, with government whips targeting 15 potential Labour rebels to get the deal over the line after Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party came out strongly against.
In the Commons, Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, urged Johnson to reconsider the deal. “It was once said that no British prime minister could ever agree to such terms and indeed those who sought the leadership of the Tory party said so at our conference,” he said.
By Saturday morning, the government appeared to have won over at least 21 MPs who previously voted against Theresa May’s deal, including most hardline Brexiteers and some Labour members from Leave-voting seats. After an early morning meeting of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, its chair, Steve Baker, said it would back Johnson’s deal “in the national interest”.
Most of the 21 Tory rebels who were stripped of the whip have also said they’ll back the deal once the extension is secured and the withdrawal legislation is passed.
But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the Commons: “This government cannot be trusted and these benches will not be duped.”
Corbyn said the deal was worse than May’s deal, which was rejected by MPs three times. “The message is clear,” he said. “This deal is not good for jobs, damaging for industry, and a threat to our environment and natural world.
“It is not a good deal for our country and future generations who will feel the impact. It should be voted down.”
Both sides have been working furiously to secure votes since Thursday, with Johnson’s team attempting to sweet talk Labour MPs into backing the proposals and bring round potential Tory rebels who may have voted it down.
Labour, meanwhile, has been putting fierce pressure on its MPs not to back Johnson’s Brexit deal, with huge emphasis on failures to protect workers’ rights, and warnings that backing a Tory Brexit deal ahead of a general election could destroy relationships with both the electorate and their own parliamentary colleagues.
With no majority in Parliament, and a firm rejection of the deal from the government’s confidence and supply partners the DUP, opposition MPs look to be Johnson’s final hope of getting a deal through.