Brexit vote setback for Boris Johnson in Parliament

By Rob Picheta, CNN

Updated 7:44 a.m. ET, October 21, 2019
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7:57 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

Labour says Johnson's plan is a "trap door to no-deal"

Labour's Keir Starmer.
Labour's Keir Starmer. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour Party’s lead spokesman on Brexit, has been addressing MPs. Much of his speech has focused on the trustworthiness of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Starmer notes that, when Johnson spoke at last year’s annual conference of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish group that props up his government, he promised that no British leader would ever agree to a Brexit deal that placed a border in the Irish Sea.

Now, Starmer notes, he has done just that, by agreeing a deal that places a customs border metaphorically in the waterway that separates Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Anyone considering Johnson’s promises to maintain, for example, workers’ rights need to “reflect” on how he had treated the DUP: “Promise, then burn."

Starmer also echoes the fear of many Labour lawmakers and some Conservatives – that a no-deal Brexit could happen at the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020 if a free trade agreement is not concluded with the EU by then.

Johnson’s deal is a “trap door to no-deal,” Starmer said.

7:54 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

Meanwhile, a huge anti-Brexit march is underway in London

From CNN's Hadas Gold in London

As lawmakers debate Boris Johnson's Brexit deal in the Houses of Parliament, thousands of protesters are calling for a second referendum outside.

They began near Park Lane and are working their way down Whitehall, past Downing Street and ending at a rally at Parliament Square.

Organizers are expecting big numbers, and say they have hired the same number of buses -- more than 170 -- to bring in protesters as they did for their last March where they claimed attendance hit one million. Authorities have not given estimates of crowd sizes.

Unlike in previous iterations of this march, Parliament is sitting in a special session. So if the protesters are loud enough the members inside Westminster might just hear them.

7:46 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

Here's where we are on Brexit's Super Saturday

Time for a recap. It's just after midday in London, and lawmakers are deep into their debate on Boris Johnson's Brexit deal -- but there's plenty of drama still to come.

There's no certainty about when exactly the crucial votes will happen. We're expecting them to be sometime after 2:30 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. ET), and we may be in for a very long night.

Here's what's happening:

  • Boris Johnson's Brexit withdrawal deal is being put to a vote: MPs are arguing over the Prime Minister's new deal, achieved last week after months of fractured negotiations with the European Union.
  • ...Unless it isn't: A game-changing amendment to the bill, from former Conservative lawmaker Oliver Letwin, could turn everything upside down today making so-called Super Saturday a little less super. The amendment seeks to withhold support from the bill until all of the other related legislation has also passed, ensuring an "accidental" no-deal on October 31 is avoided. A senior government source tells CNN it will pull today's vote on Johnson's deal if the Letwin amendment passes. It's all a bit complicated, but here's a rundown of what that amendment means.
  • It's still too close to call: If the Brexit deal does come to a vote, it'll be a nail-biter. Johnson has won over most, if not all, of the hardliners in his own party. He seems to have made some hay with the independents he'd previously expelled from his party, too. Perhaps the key group are those potential Labour rebels, who may break with their party and support the government. Here's a visualization of the arithmetic in Parliament.
7:05 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

Government will bring a meaningful vote next week if Letwin amendment passes

From CNN’s Luke McGee in Westminster

Oliver Letwin.
Oliver Letwin. Leon Neal/Getty Images

If the Letwin amendment passes, the government will bring a meaningful vote on the whole Withdrawal Agreement Bill on Tuesday, a senior government source told CNN.

The Letwin amendment withholds Parliament’s approval of Johnson’s deal until after all the complex legislation that implements the deal – the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) – is passed.

It would force Boris Johnson to request a Brexit extension until January 31 on Saturday night, as per the Benn Act.

Letwin and his backers – who include Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson and Labour Party backbencher Hilary Benn – believe that without it, Brexiteers could stymie the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and the UK would “accidentally” crash out on October 31. It is an “insurance policy”, they say.

But it is not a given that the amendment will pass -- Alistair Burt, an Independent ex-Conservative MP, just said in the Commons that he won't vote for it, which suggests the vote will be tight.

6:41 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

Why the Letwin amendment kills Boris Johnson's momentum

Analysis from CNN's Luke McGee in Westminster

 TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images
 TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday morning, Boris Johnson had a spring in his step.

He'd returned from Brussels with a new Brexit withdrawal deal. Most of his own party supports it, and although Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party is withholding support, opposition lawmakers were lining up behind the deal.

Johnson was making clear to these supporters of a softer Brexit that if they don't vote for his deal, then they make a no-deal crash out a real possibility. And for some hours, Johnson's "my deal or no deal" gambit was working.

Then Oliver Letwin published his amendment, killing Johnson's momentum.

The Letwin amendment essentially means that the government cannot pass the deal in full until all of the Brexit legislation has passed. Letwin says that his aim is to provide a safety net to avoid an accidental no deal.

The government thinks that it's a plot to delay Brexit and prevent the UK from leaving the EU. They might have a point. Johnson is obliged by law to request a Brexit extension if no formal deal is agreed by the House of Commons at 11 p.m. tonight. The Letwin amendment effectively makes meeting that requirement impossible.

Letwin has presented MPs with an alternative to the "my deal or no deal" threat issued by Johnson and the government. And for now, it's killed dead the rush of support for the Prime Minister.

6:31 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

Brexit Secretary urges Oliver Letwin to pull amendment

Steve Barclay, the Brexit Secretary, has asked Oliver Letwin to pull his amendment, which would withhold support on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's deal until the subsequent legislation has passed and a no-deal Brexit has been avoided.

The amendment "would render today's vote meaningless," says Barclay. "The public will be appalled by pointless further delay."

"I ask my right honorable friend, in that spirit, to withdraw his amendment," Barclay says, facing Letwin on the backbenches.

6:41 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

Back the deal or face an election, Downing Street says

From CNN’s Luke McGee in Westminster

If Parliament blocks Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal on Saturday, the alternative is an election, the Prime Minister’s political spokesman said.

He says the public would expect Parliament to do whatever it takes to get Brexit done by October 31 and that a vote for the Letwin amendment is a vote for delay.

Johnson would have to table a motion to secure an election, and Parliament would have to vote for it -- which they have refused to do so thus far.

Meanwhile, the PM’s spokesman said the EU believes there is enough time to ratify the deal by the deadline at the end of the month.

He added that the government’s focus is making sure the Letwin amendment doesn’t pass.

5:51 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

A penny for Theresa May's thoughts

Former Prime Minister Theresa May is watching opposition MPs attack Boris Johnson's deal in the Commons, after she failed to pass her own agreement three times.

Ian Blackford, the SNP's Westminster leader, told the chamber Johnson's deal is "worse" than May's pact -- which prompted a stern glare from May.

Watch the moment above.

5:34 a.m. ET, October 19, 2019

Chair of hardline group says they'll back the deal

Steve Baker, the chair or the all-important ERG group of hardline Conservative backbenchers, confirms that the bloc is supporting the deal.

Several of the group's members, who blocked ex-PM Theresa May's deal from passing, had previously confirmed they would support the bill.

That gives Johnson as many as 28 additional votes for his deal, putting it on the cusp of success. But just a few holdouts from within the ERG's ranks could still prove crucial.