Boris Johnson's Brexit bill passes Parliament but lawmakers reject timetable

By Bianca Britton and Rob Picheta, CNN

Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT) October 23, 2019
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1:18 p.m. ET, October 22, 2019

DUP MPs privately admit they should have backed Theresa May

Analysis from CNN's Luke McGee

In what is turning into one of the strangest days in the short history of Brexit, some interesting conversations are taking place around Westminster. 

Cast your mind back to 2017: The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, you'll recall, agreed to support Theresa May's minority government in exchange for an extra £1bn ($1.3bn) dollars for Northern Ireland. 

They then didn't support Theresa May when she came back from Brussels late last year with a Brexit deal. 

Why? Because of something called the backstop, which sought to avoid the need for either a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The DUP's concern was that the backstop tied Northern Ireland to the EU indefinitely and left it with no say over its future. 

Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster.
Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster. BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

Hardline Conservative Brexiteers in London supported the DUP position at the time, saying that they would not sell out the Union. However, these largely English Conservatives had another issue with the backstop, in that it tied the UK so close to Europe that it meant May's deal was Brexit in name only (Brino, as they call it). 

Fast forward to last week and Johnson has struck a new deal with the EU. His deal, however, effectively creates a special status for Northern Ireland, meaning that it will in some respects be closer to the UK than mainland Britain. It also creates an effective border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. 

As the debate in the chamber draws nearer to its close, DUP MPs have been arguing with Conservative Brexiteers who they believe have thrown them under the bus for supporting Johnson. 

When John Redwood, an arch Conservative Brexiteer who voted against May but is backing Johnson, said that he was concerned about Northern Ireland, a DUP MP shouted in response "well what are you going to do about it." 

Privately, some DUP MPs have been telling more liberal Conservatives that they were wrong to defy May. In the words of one Conservative MP, referring to a conversation they'd had with a DUP colleague: "He should have voted for May’s deal and not trusted the English nationalists. I warned him and this morning he had the good grace to thank me and agree that he should have listened to me."

Ouch. 

12:53 p.m. ET, October 22, 2019

Government accused of "bully boy tactics"

Independent Conservative MP, Dominic Grieve has told Parliament that he will vote against the government's program motion, because he's concerned about its "bully boy tactics."

Expelled Conservative MP Dominic Grieve.
Expelled Conservative MP Dominic Grieve. OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

"I do very much regret the programme motion. It is really treating the House in an insulting way," Grieve said.

"And it says something about this Government that worries me. I am a Conservative, even if I've lost the whip I remain a Conservative, and to see a Government with a constitutional measure playing really bully boy tactics with the House, it can only be counterproductive to the very aims that the government itself would like to achieve."

12:44 p.m. ET, October 22, 2019

Downing Street is "bluffing," ex-Tory says

Lawmakers continue to debate the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the House of Commons.

Meanwhile, Nick Boles -- a leader in the ex-Tory, anti-no-deal brigade -- says he believes 10 Downing Street is "bluffing" and that there is "no way" Boris Johnson would pull a successful bill.

"No 10 is bluffing, as usual. There is no way that after winning a famous victory on 2nd reading the PM is going to pull the bill just because MPs reject the programme motion. He will bring forward a revised motion giving us a few more days and blame Parliament for any extension," Boles tweeted.

12:25 p.m. ET, October 22, 2019

Boris Johnson "has lost my respect," DUP Brexit spokesman says

From Peter Taggart in Belfast

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost his “respect” in a scathing speech in the House of Commons.

"I nearly choked when the prime minister said it. He told us: "Well don't worry about it because all of these changes which will affect Northern Ireland will be light touch. It's not really a boundary down the Irish sea.
"I would have had some respect had the prime minister said "I have a deadline of the 31st of October, I have to get it round ... therefore having to make concessions." ... But what i don't take is that the prime minister thinks I can't read the agreement that's been published and I can't see in that agreement what the impact is for Northern Ireland."

Watch the exchange here:

11:53 a.m. ET, October 22, 2019

Election threat puts Johnson back on the front foot

Analysis from CNN's Luke McGee

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon, things looked pretty rosy for Boris Johnson. His surprise deal with Brussels last week caught everyone off guard and, here in Westminster, the consensus was that he was getting close to having the votes in Parliament to have it approved. Then an amendment was passed which wrecked all of his plans. 

Johnson's plan, ever since getting a deal with the EU, had been to present lawmakers with an ultimatum: vote for my deal or you are responsible for either a delay or for a no-deal Brexit. The amendment, known at the Letwin amendment, gave MPs another option. 

This afternoon's announcement that if his deal is rejected by Parliament he will seek an election is merely an extension of the same strategy. The problem for Johnson is that for many MPs, any option is preferable to backing Johnson. 

MPs of all political stripes simply don't trust the PM. Opposition Labour MPs who might reluctantly back the deal were worried that he would sell them out on protecting workers' rights. Northern Irish Unionists thought that Johnson's deal would allow their Republican rivals agitate towards forcing Irish reunification. And even his own Conservative Euroskeptics worried that Johnson was giving powers away to Brussels that London would be unable to scrutinize in the future. In short, Johnson's track record left many worried that he was a man ready to sell out anyone and everyone if it meant that he looked like that man that got Brexit done. 

Being strongarmed into backing his deal because the alternative was so horrible was for many a matter of last resort. However, knowing that the Letwin amendment would allow MPs to attach further amendments to his Brexit deal moved the calculus away from Johnson. 

By saying that he would push for an election, Johnson is back on the front foot. As he made clear in Parliament, he wants MPs to back his deal. If they knock it down, then the delay is on their hands. And that's a point he will be only too willing to make on the stump. 

11:37 a.m. ET, October 22, 2019

Oliver Letwin says he'll back the program motion

Boris Johnson's threat to pull his Brexit bill if his program motion is voted down tonight appears to be working on some of his former colleagues.

Oliver Letwin, a former Tory who has led the charge against a no-deal Brexit, said he's "seriously worried" that the government will pull the motion.

11:28 a.m. ET, October 22, 2019

Conservative Party tells members an election is "coming up soon"

From CNN's Luke McGee

The Conservative Party has emailed all its members telling them that a general election is "coming up soon," amid suggestions Boris Johnson could push for a poll tonight.

In an email seen by CNN that may have been sent prematurely, the party writes:

"Dear [member],

The next few months will decide the future of the country. So we want to continue to make sure you stay up-to-date.

Together, as a country, we're moving forward."

Then, in a key passage, it states:

"And with a general election coming up soon, we want to continue to keep you in the know."

There is, of course, no election coming up yet. But Johnson earlier confirmed he would seek one if he loses tonight's program motion and Brexit is subjected to a lengthy delay.

10:53 a.m. ET, October 22, 2019

435 pages long and just three days to approve it. Why the WAB is so controversial

Leon Neal/Getty Images
Leon Neal/Getty Images

We're in the Brexit endgame -- or so Boris Johnson hopes.

By Thursday evening, the British Prime Minister intends to have done the seemingly impossible and passed a Brexit deal.

But whether he is able to do that depends on a series of crucial votes by lawmakers on his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB).

Johnson is hoping to push the entirety of the WAB through Parliament this week, enabling him to keep to his pledge of taking Britain out of the EU before November.

The whole 115-page bill is online, with another 320 pages of memos and notes, so you can read it in its entirety if you want to. But since no-one wants to do that, here's an explainer on the WAB and why it's so important.

10:05 a.m. ET, October 22, 2019

Corbyn tells Labour MPs to think "very carefully" about rebelling

Jeremy Corbyn urged wavering MPs to think "very, very carefully" about how they vote on the Brexit bill later.

"No wonder some of the Conservative benches are suddenly so keen to jump on board with this deal because it opens the door to the no-deal Brexit that this House has voted against on numerous occasions," the opposition leader said.

"This is a charter for a Brexit ... that will be good for the hedge fund managers and the speculators, but bad for the communities that we represent, our industries and people's jobs and living standards," Corbyn added.