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22 October 2019

Boris Johnson bottles it as Parliament rejects his Brexit timetable

The Prime Minister is caught between a Parliament that accepts his exit terms but rejects his plans for the future relationship.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has paused the Brexit process and essentially accepted that he will miss his 31 October target after the House of Commons voted to accept his Brexit deal in principle but voted against the narrow timetable he wanted to pass the legislation.

Both results were expected, but they confirmed the narrow margin of Johnson’s majority – in a vote that was essentially a “free hit” (as Labour MPs knew they could both vote to accept Brexit and stop it in its tracks immediately after) he got the support of just 19 Labour MPs. The support of much of that group is predicated on the ability to seek various amendments at the British end – to the scope of the final EU-UK trade deal to the provisions to prevent a no-deal exit at the end of the transition.

And for a second successive occasion, Johnson’s public words fell some way short of the bellicose language emanating from his Downing Street. The implicit threat of the government’s private briefing was that it might move to an immediate election – but the “e” word was noticeably absent from his response in the Commons.

The problem that Johnson has is that there is a thin, but fragile, majority to accept the terms of exit he has negotiated in this parliament. There is no majority to accept the future trade agreement he envisages, or to allow him to present MPs with the cliff-edge he desires – and it is not clear if those two forces will mean that he cannot find a pretext for the election he needs to move from having a majority for his exit terms and a majority for his future relationship.

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