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21 October 2019

The chances of Brexit happening before an election are quickly falling

Johnson’s only remaining option may be to pull the legislation, claim Bercow and MPs stopped him from getting a proper Brexit, take his deal to the country, and hope for a majority.

By Patrick Maguire

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: Boris Johnson will bring his Brexit deal before the Commons for another meaningful vote today, after MPs denied the government its Super Saturday by voting to withhold their approval until the withdrawal agreement is written into law.

Or at least that’s what the Prime Minister would like to happen. Having another go – and winning – would allow him to withdraw the request for an Article 50 extension until 31 January, which, after much huffing, puffing and theatricality, he ended up sending on Saturday night. But John Bercow, the Speaker, will almost certainly rule the vote out or order and block it on the same grounds he pre-emptively denied Theresa May a third vote on her deal in March: MPs have already considered the question.

As much as ministers might moan that Oliver Letwin’s chicanery denied them the opportunity to ask parliament to say a straight yes or no to the deal – they insist, with some justification, that a majority would give the first answer – the uncomfortable truth is that the Commons decided it did not want to engage with the question until no-deal was taken off the table. Such are the consequences of approaching the task of governing without a majority as a challenge to antagonise as many MPs as possible, be it through bilious briefings or repeated threats to leave on 31 October by any means necessary.

Once Bercow says no, what then? The only course of action available to the government is to do what the Letwin amendment asked them to, and bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Tomorrow’s vote on whether it should receive a second reading will serve as a de facto meaningful vote. They could then in theory rush it through the Commons before Halloween.

But as much as ministers claim a majority exists for the deal, there is no guarantee that MPs will agree to a truncated timetable. Letwin himself said that he wanted a deal by 31 October but, with an extension in the bag, the MPs who supported him might instead take more time to debate and amend the legislation to soften Johson’s Brexit — or put it to a referendum.

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Despite featuring on just about every front page this morning, the latter isn’t going to happen (though it suits Downing Street to pretend that it might). The real risk for the government is that a majority for a customs union exists.

Keir Starmer has said that Labour will table an amendment to that effect, ex-Tory rebels like Rory Stewart say they would support it – and so might the DUP, which has pledged to support any amendment that delivers a Brexit that applies more or less equally to the entire UK.

Arlene Foster’s ten MPs have rejected Starmer’s appeal for their support on a second referendum, but they have done no such thing on customs. And there is a big risk that some of those MPs who Downing Street is relying on to vote through its deal instead opt for a customs union. Its majority is so ramshackle, and the policy asks of the MPs of whom it is made up so divergent, that it could well spontaneously combust.

Of course, if this crop of Conservative MPs was happy to have a customs union foisted upon it by parliament, the UK would have already left the EU by now and Theresa May would still be prime minister. Johnson could not wear it in any circumstances. At that point, his only remaining option would be to pull the legislation, say Bercow and then MPs stopped him from getting a proper Brexit done, take his deal to the country, and hope for a majority.

Though ministers might insist otherwise, by this afternoon the chances of the UK leaving on 31 October or indeed at any point this year without an election might have evaporated for good.