One step forward, two steps back. That seems to be the pace at which the UK is moving towards its exit from the European Union, even as it nears its current Brexit deadline at the end of the month.
The on-again, off-again process took another twist on this week, as Boris Johnson finally won a vote on a Brexit deal in Parliament – only to have his hopes dashed minutes later, when MPs rejected his three-day timetable to rush the legislation through the Commons.
Johnson responded by “pausing” the process on Wednesday, while London waits to see whether the EU will grant an extension to the October 31 deadline. On Thursday, he took one step further and challenged Parliament to grant him an election to break the Brexit impasse.
Here’s how it came to this.
Didn’t Boris Johnson pass his Brexit deal?
No, but given the head-scratching complexities of British parliamentary processes, international audiences would be forgiven for thinking he had.
On Tuesday, Johnson won the first parliamentary vote on the legislation designed to implement his deal. The bill passed the confusingly named second reading by by a decent majority, too – 329 votes to 299. But some Labour MPs who dislike the deal say they voted in favor so that it could move onto the next phase, when amendments can be added.
That means things like a softer Brexit, such customs union arrangement can be added and voted on, essentially changing the form of Johnson’s deal entirely.
Even without those Labour lawmakers, it’s likely that Johnson just about has a majority for his deal. But for now, it’s a moot point – because Johnson “paused” the legislation when MPs refused to let him rush it through Parliament in three days.
And there’s another caveat – Johnson’s vote on his deal was indicative of its level of support in Parliament, but it wasn’t definitive. There still has to be a “meaningful vote” on his pact, and an amendment which passed on Saturday means that every piece of his agreement also needs to be supported in Parliament before Britain can leave the EU.
Still, Johnson is justified in celebrating the fact that, for the first time in three years, Parliament has given a show of support to a Brexit plan.
Will Brexit be delayed?
That seems likely.
After pledging for months that he would absolutely, definitively deliver Brexit on October 31 – do or die, dead in a ditch and all that – Johnson requested a delay, forced by a law enacted by Parliament earlier this year.
EU Council President Donald Tusk has recommended EU leaders accept the request, though the main question is how long the extension will be.
As mandated by law, the UK asked for three months, though France – traditionally the bad cop in extension talks – may want a shorter extension. Sources at the French presidency were already expressing exasperation. ” At the end of the week we will see if a purely technical extension of a few days is necessary, so that the British Parliament can finish this parliamentary procedure. But outside these circumstances, an extension intended to buy time or to discuss the agreement again is excluded,” a source told CNN.
Any extension would be flexible, allowing the UK to leave sooner if it passes a bill before the end date.
Will there be a general election?
Given the likelihood of an extension, Johnson on Thursday opted to come good on his pledge to call an election rather than stomach a lengthy delay.
Challenging lawmakers, he told the BBC: :”If they genuinely want more time to study this excellent deal they can have it. But they have to agree to a general election on December 12,” he said.
The ball is now in the court of the opposition Labour party, which must agree to the election if it can go ahead. Under the terms of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, an election can only happen part-way through a government’s five-year term if two thirds of the House of Commons agrees to it.
The Scottish National Party has said it would support an election, bu Labour has wavered.