Backbench amendment forces UK PM to request new Brexit delay

By on 21/10/2019 | Updated on 24/09/2020
PM Boris Johnson confirmed the merger in a speech titled ‘Global Britain’ on 16 June. (Image courtesy: Chatham House via flickr).

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has been forced to write to the European Council asking for a further delay to Brexit, after the ‘Meaningful Vote’ motion approving the exit deal – which was finalised with the EU last Thursday – was amended in the House of Commons.

The Letwin amendment, championed by former Tory minister Sir Oliver Letwin, was approved on a rare Saturday sitting by 322 votes to 306. The government was obliged under previous legislation – the Benn Act, passed in September – to request an extension if it had not won a Meaningful Vote on Johnson’s deal by 11pm on Saturday. But Letwin feared that wrangles over the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) legislation required to enact the deal would lead to delays, pushing its completion date past the existing Brexit day of 31 October – and leading to an accidental no deal departure. Opposition parties are likely to seek WAB amendments softening Johnson’s Brexit and requiring a confirmatory referendum, and Letwin was also concerned that hard Brexit Tories might have withdrawn their support for the deal in a bid to secure a no deal exit.

Letwin’s amendment effectively moved the bar set by the Benn Act for the government to avoid seeking another extension – postponing it from the passing of the Meaningful Vote, to the final approval of the WAB. So Johnson was required to request an extension and reluctantly complied, sending it to the European council along with other letters designed to show that he was doing so under duress.

Insurance policy

Letwin – one of 21 rebel Conservative MPs who had the Tory whip withdrawn for backing the Benn Act – said he supported Johnson’s deal, but that he wanted to make sure there is an “insurance policy” in place to avoid the risk of a no deal exit.

After Letwin’s amendment was passed, the government decided not to hold the meaningful vote itself. “The opportunity to have a meaningful vote has been effectively been passed up because the meaningful vote has been voided of meaning,” Johnson told MPs after his defeat.

Today, the government sought to bring the Meaningful Vote back to the House of Commons, but speaker Bercow refused – citing the convention that the government may not seek twice to approve legislation unless substantive changes have been made.   

Possible withdrawal bill amendments

Amendments to the WAB are likely and could include the negotiation of a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU. However, the government is vehemently opposed to a customs union. If such an amendment were to be passed, Johnson would be likely to scrap the withdrawal bill and opt for a general election instead, in the hope that the Conservative Party would win a majority.

Another amendment is likely to make any Brexit deal conditional on a second referendum to approve or reject it. However, most believe this would not get the required support in Parliament.

In the meantime, Johnson is awaiting an answer from the EU on whether it will grant an extension. The European Commission has confirmed that – despite the prime minister’s theatrical accompanying letter opposing a further Brexit delay – Brussels is considering the terms of a prolongation of the UK’s membership. The EU27 could veto an extension, but would then face the risk of a chaotic exit on 31 October. If it approves it, this risk falls away – and meanwhile the UK’s chaotic politics could produce better outcomes for the EU, including a Johnson majority government able to pass its deal; a new government committed to a softer Brexit; or a confirmatory referendum that might result in the UK remaining in the EU.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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