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18 October 2019

What does Oliver Letwin’s amendment mean for Brexit?

In practice, the government will decide.

By Stephen Bush

Oliver Letwin has tabled an amendment to the government’s Brexit motion that would, effectively amend it so it welcomed the government’s Brexit deal, but would fall short of the wording required by the Benn Act, thereby compelling the government to seek an extension to the Brexit process.

What does it mean if it passes? Well, I think it really depends on how Downing Street decides to play it. I now think they have the votes to pass the deal through Parliament and it is at least possible that means they can also simply see off the Letwin amendment (though the perverse outcome where Labour rebels kill off the Letwin amendment and Conservative opponents of no deal then vote down Boris Johnson’s deal cannot be ruled out, and in many ways is the quintessential Brexit outcome).

But the government could react to losing the Letwin vote by declaring the neutral motion an indicative one, declaring victory or defeat as necessary and either moving onto its Brexit deal passing or its “Brexit’s great under the Conservatives, don’t let Jeremy Corbyn block or delay it” general election campaign.

I simply don’t believe that, given that Boris Johnson has actually negotiated a Brexit deal that it will be a significant event in the life of the country if it becomes legally operational on  4 November rather than 31 October, not least because we will be in a standstill transition anyway. Given that he tried to suspend Parliament, lied to the Queen and double-crossed the DUP to get a deal, I am thoroughly unconvinced that the line that he has gone soft on Brexit is going to land in an election even if that election takes place while we are still EU members, so I see no reason why the government wouldn’t just declare victory and trundle on.

The other option of course is that the government could interpret losing the Letwin amendment as a thumping defeat, withdraw the motion, seek an extension and go to the country on a “they’re blocking our lovely deal!” ticket and hope for the best.

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But I think in practice the question of “what does it mean if the Letwin amendment passes” is one that the government will decide.

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