What happens next for Boris Johnson's Brexit deal?

A step-by-step guide to what's likely to happen over the next few days.

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The Speaker, John Bercow, has rejected the government’s request to hold another meaningful vote on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal today. Although the government will perform annoyance about this decision, it was almost certain to happen: MPs voted on the same question on Saturday, and there is a rule that the same matter cannot be voted on twice in the same session of parliament, unless it has been substantially changed. So what happens next?

Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB)

Today the government will begin to introduce the actual legislation required to make Boris Johnson’s deal law in the Commons, with the first votes on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (or “WAB”) due to happen tomorrow (Tuesday).

Second Reading – Tuesday

After the bill’s first reading tonight (Monday) – this is a formality, involving no vote – MPs will have their first chance to debate the WAB thoroughly and then vote on it tomorrow. It is highly likely to pass: even MPs who have issues with the Brexit deal in its current form, like Labour’s Lisa Nandy, want to get through this stage so that they can discuss the agreement in detail and introduce amendments.

Programme Motion – Tuesday

The first real battle, also due to take place tomorrow, will be over the government’s proposed timing for debating the bill.  The government is planning 12-hour days and weekend sittings in order to push the legislation through parliament in time for 31 October, which could prove unpopular with MPs who want more time to scrutinise the legislation. Those MPs could, in theory, amend the motion to give themselves longer to debate each stage, running over the 31 October deadline in the assumption that the EU will grant the extension that was requested at the weekend. There is also the potential for it to be voted down at this point.

Amendments – Wednesday

Once the second reading is complete, the WAB will pass on to committee stage, where it can be amended by the MPs on the committee, and will then come back to the chamber, where it will be further debated and amended by MPs.

This is where the majority of the drama is expected to happen, with MPs expected to table a number of amendments which could significantly alter the substance of the agreement and effectively scupper Boris Johnson’s plan. The main possibilities for amendments (depending on what is tabled and what the Speaker picks) are:

  1. Customs Union: Keir Starmer has indicated that Labour is considering bringing an amendment that would ensure the UK would remain in the customs union, effectively killing the deal from the government’s perspective. The government would then be expected to pull the bill altogether and instead go for an election, in the hope that it would get a majority and be able to implement its deal that way. For that very reason, despite the latent majority of MPs who support the softer Brexit that would be offered by staying in the Customs Union, they are unlikely to vote for it this week, as Stephen explains here. The DUP has not, however, ruled out voting for this option.
  2. 2020 lock: Another option under consideration is an amendment that would get rid of what Labour and former Conservatives like Philip Hammond see as the “trapdoor to no deal” inherent in the current withdrawal agreement. As it stands, the UK could leave the EU with no deal in December 2020; an amendment would give parliament the option to request an extension to the transition period for another two years.
  3. Second Referendum: The Kyle-Wilson amendment is unlikely to win majority support in the Commons, and the DUP has already indicated that it won’t back this.

Meanwhile, at some point, probably after the bill passes its second reading, the EU is expected to offer an extension, possibly with some conditions attached.

That’s the detail of the next few days, but looking at the big picture, there are really only two options: either Boris Johnson passes his deal, slowly or quickly, or at some point in the process, the deal becomes something he no longer wishes to pass. At that point, no matter how close we are to home, we slide back down the snake to a general election.  

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman