The year is 2099: cars have been replaced by organic flying pods, robots roam the planet recycling ancient carrier bags, mankind has colonised Saturn and cured every known disease… but we’re still talking about bloody Brexit.
Brexit really is the gift that keeps on giving. Except it’s a really crap gift. Like a pair of ugly socks from your aunt handed to you for Christmas which then gave you verrucas. And so it came to pass that this Saturday it looked as though the whole thing might finally be over. Then it wasn’t. In the words of an MP I spoke to on Saturday evening “What a shitshow…”
Okay, so I’ve missed half a season of Brexit, the last episode I watched was the Theresa May ‘Meaningful vote’ cliffhanger: catch me up…
Woah, you’ve clearly been in a coma, but unlike Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping you’ve not woken up to Sandra Bullock being a bit clingy, but you’ve come round just as it all looks pretty much the same as it did back in March. Welcome to Groundhog Day. So quick catch up: MPs scuppered May’s deal, she quit, Boris Johnson took over as Prime Minister and negotiated another deal with the EU, and now MPs are considering it. Probably…
Wait, Boris got a new deal? Wasn’t that meant to be impossible?
Yes, everyone (including the EU) said that Theresa May’s deal was impossible to ‘re-open’ and that the hated backstop, which would keep Britain in the EU indefinitely if a final trade deal couldn’t be reached, could never be jettisoned. And yet, last week, Boris Johnson stood on a podium alongside Jean-Claude Junker and announced that after an intensive week or so of negotiations, the EU and the government finally had a deal. The decks were cleared and parliament met for an historic Saturday sitting, the first since the Falklands War, to finally approve the deal so that Britain could leave in time for MPs to go to their Halloween parties on the 31st (check out some ideas here, Jeremy).
That’s amazing! I’ll nip out and get a bottle of Champagne…
Who do you think you are, Mark Carney? Not so fast. So MPs already passed a law (the Benn Act) that said that if an agreement wasn’t reached by Saturday evening then the PM would have to ask the EU for a three month extension, putting our departure back to 2020. Bear with me…
Step forward eccentric former Tory MP Oliver Letwin (you may remember him from previous scandals such as the time he randomly decided to put all his constituents’ mail in a St James’s Park bin. And, Handbook exclusive, one of our spies was there when David Cameron discovered that Letwin had ‘borrowed’ the future PM’s tax-payer funded car to drive to the West Country and back to collect his black tie outfit, which he’d forgotten; just oddball). Anyway, the West Dorset MP introduced an amendment to Boris’s withdrawal bill on Saturday saying that if the agreement was passed, it wouldn’t get final assent until the withdrawal bill (a separate thing) implementing Brexit has been passed. Put simply, it guaranteed that the Benn Act would, in turn, be triggered, drumroll… delaying Brexit.
Opposition MPs backed the amendment and the government’s vote became no longer ‘meaningful’, so they pulled the plug and there wasn’t a big vote on the new EU deal.
I’m literally only JUST about with you. So did he ask the EU for a three month extension?
Yes. And no. He complied with the law (probably, in a further plot-twist, a Scottish court will today rule on if this was legal), and sent a letter asking for an extension (unsigned, and basically a scrappy photocopy of the Benn Act). And he accompanied it with a letter asking for the total opposite: that the EU offer no extension at all!
And did they?
Nope. They’ve remained schtum in the hope that Boris can still get their agreement through parliament. They’ll probably see which way the wind’s blowing over the next week or so before making a decision.
Great, so what happens next?
Today Boris will put his withdrawal bill to parliament, if the speaker lets him, and finally seek some resolution from parliament.
Did you say ‘if the speaker lets him?’
Oh, yes, fun times: there’s a chance the speaker will say ‘no’ and refuse to allow the government the chance to put the bill to parliament. Speaker John Bercow (of OOOORDUHH fame) may argue that because MPs debated the bill on Saturday, they can’t have a second crack at it, even through the government pulled the actual vote. We’ll know more this afternoon.
Dramatic eye roll… Alright, let’s assume he let’s it happen, then what?
Then the PM has an almighty rush to get the bill passed in the commons. The government is convinced that there are enough supporters of the bill, from Tories, people the Tories have kicked out of the Tory party (including, would you believe, Oliver Letwin!) and Labour MPs who want to honour the result of the 2016 referendum (remember that?). But it faces several hurdles…
I can’t take it. I’m looking through my fingers here. What hurdles?
Right. So firstly the PM has to actually get the numbers he’s been promised, a tall order and one that could be incredibly close given he has no majority (thank you Theresa May for calling the disastrous 2017 election). But also opposition parties are determined to wreck the bill.
Firstly Labour will be tabling an amendment to remain within the customs union, which would totally change the bill and take us back to square one. The SNP are potentially against this, though don’t think that’ll dissuade them from kicking the government when it’s down.
There will also be attempts to force a second referendum on the agreement.
BUT, if against all odds Boris Johnson can get the votes tonight, then we might finally have a definite leaving date for Brexit, 31st October 2019. Only THEN does the hard work start as we embark on a year-long negotiation over the future trade deal Britain and the EU enjoy.
Quite. Watch this space…
UPDATE 15:45: Speaker Bercow has refused the government a so-called ’meaningful vote’…