The 19th of October 2019 was business as usual when it came to Brexit. This, of course, means full of divisions, Chief Whips running around like headless chickens and votes that nobody could predict in the slightest. This time it came in the form of Boris Johnson producing his attempt at a Brexit deal to the House of Commons to see if he could do what Theresa May never could – pass the deal that he brought back from Brussels.
Johnson’s deal was in many ways similar to Theresa May’s. They were both incredibly lengthy documents (that the vast majority of MPs won’t even have looked at, nevermind read in full) which spelt out the UK’s leaving arrangements regarding the EU, which almost completely matched May’s deal. However, it departed in a couple of key areas: The Northern Ireland border, workers’ rights, and the political context.
In terms of the Northern Ireland border, Johnson’s plan was to keep Northern Ireland in the UK’s customs area, whilst still collecting tariffs (taxes) on behalf of the EU, and allowing Stormont (the Northern Ireland assembly) to dictate when Northern Ireland would fully transition to just being a part of the UK. Although the removal of the Irish backstop (hard border) was seen as a huge win for Johnson – having been a point of disagreement in May’s deal – it introduced a new significant roadblock to the deal’s passing in the form of a hostile DUP. The DUP has effectively kept the Conservatives in power for the last 2 years, but treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK was a big no-no for them. The Conservatives had now lost the DUP, which meant the unthinkable; the Conservative Party was relying on Labour MPs.
The Labour Party has long upheld the tradition of being the political party for the working class, and have said for years that they couldn’t support any deal that threatened the rights of workers in the UK. Theresa May’s solution in this aspect was relatively acceptable. Boris Johnson’s deal, however, doesn’t feature such protections. Instead, they’ve been placed in the category of ‘non-binding political declarations’- essentially things Boris Johnson promises to do. This is the same Boris Johnson who tried to tell a man in a hospital that the press wasn’t attending an event whilst he was pointing right at the cameras, so his word is less than reliable at times. Whilst many Labour MPs in the Leave arena would be tempted to vote for the deal, the loss of workers’ protection could have totally negated this wish, thus losing Boris even more votes.
The only thing to have changed in Johnson’s favour was the political climate. Another deadline was approaching, and as protests outside Westminster were getting more and more frustrated and frequent, Conservative MPs seemed more united than ever in favour of the deal. This vote was going to turn into the Conservatives trying to make sure their ship held together, and they were able to drag enough Labour MPs away from their party line to sneak a majority.
The day started with the discussion of the Letwin Amendment. This amendment essentially meant that all of the legislation relating to leaving the EU – such as the Withdrawal Bill – would need to be passed before the Commons would be allowed to agree to any Deal. Essentially, it would ensure that the country was legally ready to leave the EU. The Conservatives disagreed with the amendment, seeing it as yet another attempt at delay by the opposition. Furthermore, it would make the vote on the deal itself completely meaningless (since it wouldn’t count until the laws were passed). Throughout the day this point became increasingly clear.
The biggest blow for Boris was when the DUP made it clear that they would vote against the government. The government now knew that unless they could draw over another group of Labour rebels, the vote would be lost. When it came time for the vote, only six Labour MPs had been convinced to vote with the government whilst another four abstained. It wasn’t enough, and with a unified opposition, the government lost by 322 votes to 306.
Although the events of the day seemed very complex at the time, it all boils down to the government losing a vote, meaning their main policy was rendered pointless. They ended up not contesting the vote on the amended deal, and legislation will need to be brought forward shortly if the government want the deal to be voted through. To add to the pile of Johnson’s miseries today, the deal not being agreed on this afternoon means that he’ll need to send a letter asking for an extension, thanks to the Benn Act. There are rumours he might choose not to, but that likely wouldn’t hold up through the courts and an extension would be requested regardless.
If it’s granted, Johnson will be facing one of the greatest political embarrassments in years. His entire leadership is based on leaving on the 31st of this month. Failure to do so would not only be a bad look, but would open the door wide for the Brexit Party to stroll in amidst the chaos. The almost certain future election would, in this situation, be more of a slog than the anticipated walk in the park had we left as planned.
Ultimately, Saturday’s rare Parliamentary appearance has been a disaster for Johnson. It leaves him vulnerable in an election, may lead to an extension, and may have even cost the Conservatives their deal with the DUP. Brexit’s already taken out two Conservative Prime Ministers, and it seems to be eyeing up its third.
Written by: Joe Blackburn – @JoeBlackburn42