Last night saw the Government receive a crushing – yet expected – defeat in the Commons with MPs voting 328 – 301 to take control of today’s Parliamentary agenda. This means those against leaving the European Union without a deal on October 31st are free to table a Bill calling for the Prime Minister to achieve a tangible deal with the EU by October 19th, or be forced to ask for yet another extension. The proposed new exit date would be January 31st. Should the EU even agree to further extension, any other date proffered would require the approval of Parliament. Whilst the motion does not rule out leaving without a deal overall – merely removing it as the default option instead – critics have attacked it for eroding the UK’s bargaining position by ruling it out for the next few months. Something that was a constant thorn in the former Government’s negotiating tactic.
The defeat also cost the Conservatives their working majority, although many would argue this was by their own hand. 21 rebel MPs had the Conservative whip withdrawn, including Father of the House Ken Clarke, former Chancellor Philip Hammond, and many other former Ministers. This paves the way for further defeats. The numbers in the Commons suggest the Government will lose the vote on the substantive motion tonight and that the Bill will then be passed to the Lords for approval.
Under such bruising circumstances, the Prime Minister would normally be expected to call an election and reset the system. And that is clearly what Johnson wants to do. Unfortunately for him, he is bound by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which means an early election cannot be called unless two-thirds of MPs vote in favour. Johnson has said he will table the motion if he loses the vote on the Anti-No deal Brexit Bill tonight: but can he win enough support from MPs?
Usually the opposition would jump at the chance of an early election – indeed, they would be deemed weak if they did not vote for one. However, the answer at the moment appears to be ‘no’. Labour are saying they will refuse to support an election until no deal is removed as the default option and only if a proposed election date is written into law. (It is of course nothing to do with their opinion poll ratings). The Liberal Democrats and other Parties agree, except for the SNP who have signalled support (probably due to their very high poll ratings in Scotland). Either way, that two-thirds mark seems a long way off for the Prime Minister.
If today’s legislation passes, as looks increasingly likely, and Johnson cannot force an election, then the effect will be to kick the can further down the road with another Brexit extension beyond October 31st. That is, of course, assuming the EU agrees to another extension. Parliament will still prorogue next week and a Queen’s Speech will still be held on October 14th. But with that new law in place, Parliament would only accept leaving the EU on Hallowe’en if it could agree a Withdrawal Agreement deal. It is anybody’s guess how long that would take. It would certainly mean the EU would have no incentive whatsoever to give any ground in negotiations – a deal softer than that put together by Theresa May could be the likely outcome.
However, there is still a small chance the Prime Minister will find a mechanism to frustrate the passage of the Bill and give himself breathing space to 14th October. That, or manage to pass a Bill of his own allowing an early election to be called. We can only hope all becomes clearer in the coming days.
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