For a short period, the Prime Minister was walking on water in the eyes of his supporters. The surprise deal seemed to cause a groundswell of support and goodwill. So much so, that some of us in the House of Commons watching everything play out on what was supposed to be a huge day for British politics thought he might have the numbers to get his withdrawal deal approved by Parliament.
Then a bad thing happened. Oliver Letwin, a former Conservative Minister, tabled an amendment to Johnson’s motion that knocked the Prime Minister clean off his feet.
The Letwin amendment forced Johnson to send a letter to Brussels requesting an extension to the Brexit deadline. That’s because it withheld formal approval for Johnson’s deal until all the necessary legislation has passed. That could take days, if not weeks and certainly was not possible by 11 p.m. local time (6 p.m. ET) Saturday.
Johnson’s tone has been different of late. Gone is the flamboyant language, such as rather being “dead in a ditch” than request an extension or calling the Benn Act a “surrender bill”. Instead, he’s been talking about his love of Europe and his desire to reach across both the political divide and the nation in order to get a deal that works for the whole country.
In Brussels earlier this week, journalists were stunned at how well-received Johnson was by his EU counterparts. They congratulated him on striking this deal and applauded the manner in which he negotiated, which if you think back just a few months is nothing short of extraordinary. And he’d even got the entire Cabinet on message in regard to the Benn Act, saying that the government would “comply with the law.”
But from the moment the Letwin amendment passed, we got a flash of the old Johnson.
He expressed his disappointment at the result and said that those MPs who’d backed Letwin had scuppered the “opportunity to have a meaningful vote” on his deal because “the meaningful vote has been voided of meaning.”
He then slipped further back to his old habits of sowing confusion.
“And to anticipate the questions that are coming from the benches opposite, I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so,” he said.
While Johnson didn’t go as far as saying he wouldn’t send the letter, he left enough room for people to think he was going to do something to sabotage a delay.
And in a briefing with government officials after the Prime Minister’s statement, Downing Street declined to clarify anything.
They said that “governments comply with the law,” but not that this government led by Johnson would.
In the end, three letters were sent from Downing Street before the Benn Act’s deadline, including an unsigned letter from the Prime Minister to EU Council President Donald Tusk requesting the Brexit delay and another stressing the government’s desire for the request to not be granted, a senior British government source told CNN.
It appeared that Johnson was again engaging in a bit of deliberate ambiguity, a feature of his leadership since taking office in July.
It’s a mind boggling end to a long week in British politics. It was a week which was supposed to provide some answers, and those answers were supposed to come on Super Saturday. But they didn’t. Instead, Brexit remains in a state of flux with no one sure what comes next; politicians as divided on an outcome as the public.
It’s both unhealthy and unbecoming for a nation as wealthy and important as the UK to be so obsessed with an issue that becomes unresolvable. And voters will be only too happy to let politicians know when they finally get the chance to vote.
This story has been updated.