September 25, 2021

Oliver Letwin amendment seeks to hijack Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal


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Boris Johnson’s hopes of getting his Brexit deal past MPs are teetering on the brink today as Remainers led by rebel ringleader Oliver Letwin launched a plot to force him to beg for a delay to the UK’s divorce from the EU. 

The PM is edging towards the numbers he will need to get his deal through the Commons tomorrow but pro-EU MPs have brought forward a plan which could scupper his efforts. 

In a piece of Parliamentary trickery, an amendment tabled by rebel ringleaders would effectively block the PM from seeking approval for his deal until next week.

That would ensure he is caught by the Remainer law known as the Benn Act, which orders him to send a letter to Brussels requesting an extension if no agreement has been passed by tomorrow. 

However, there is no guarantee that the EU would grant such a delay with leaders seemingly at odds on the issue. 

French president Emmanuel Macron said today that if the new deal was rejected ‘I do not think we shall grant any further delay’ while German chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly said the opposite behind closed doors at yesterday’s EU summit. 

The extraordinary Remainer tactics – brought forward by former Tory Sir Oliver – emerged as Mr Johnson launched an all-out drive to get his package over the line in a special ‘Super Saturday’ sitting of the Commons.

There are signs that his push is having some success, with dozens of Tory hardliners, ousted Conservative rebels and Labour MPs coming forward to say they will back the deal.

However, the efforts could be completely derailed by the latest Remainer revolt. 

Mr Johnson has tabled a motion asking MPs to vote for his deal tomorrow after he dramatically finalised the accord with the EU yesterday. 

But Sir Oliver has put down a proposed amendment which has widespread cross-party support including from Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson which would gut the plan. 

The proposal would see the PM’s motion changed to say that ‘this House has considered’ his deal but ‘withholds approval unless and until implementing legislation is passed.’ 

Former Tory backbencher Sir Oliver Letwin had led the attempt to change the timetable for the sitting – allowing for amendments to be tabled and voted on

Remainer MPs had hoped to amend the Prime Minister’s deal to add a ‘confirmatory’ public vote – ensuring it had to be approved by the public before Brexit could take place

The manoeuvring came after John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, distanced the Labour Party from an attempt to force a second referendum.

Remainer MPs had hoped to amend the Prime Minister’s deal to add a ‘confirmatory’ public vote – ensuring it had to be approved by the public before Brexit could take place.

But last night campaigners decided not to force a Commons showdown on the issue tomorrow as they are not confident that enough former Tory MPs will support them, sources said.

How would Oliver Letwin’s amendment rain on PM’s parade?

Boris Johnson has tabled a motion asking MPs to sign off his Brexit deal after it was dramatically finalised with EU leaders yesterday,

The government text due to be voted on tomorrow states that the House ‘approves the negotiated withdrawal agreement’.

If it passes, the provision of the Benn Act – which says the PM must beg the EU for an extension unless a deal has been approved by tomorrow – will have been met. 

The government would then start pushing through legislation to implement the detail of the agreement.

However, the amendment put forward by former Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin would change the motion to make clear that the House has not given approval.

Instead, MPs would specify that they are witholding support until after the legislation is fully finalised – effectively reversing the process. 

The tweak is intended to close a loophole in the Benn Act, as in theory MPs could approve the deal in principle and then the government could refuse to bring forward legislation to achieve No Deal on October 31.

But the names signed up to the amendment have raised suspicions about the motivations. 

Alongside Sir Oliver, fellow former Tories Philip Hammond, David Gauke Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles, Labour’s Hilary Benn, and Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson have signed up. 

Instead, they will attempt to defeat the PM’s deal first – then, if it fails, table a motion for a second referendum when more MPs are likely to vote for it. 

Mr McDonnell told the BBC’s Today programme: ‘We will talk to the opposition parties. We will look at the timing of that (amendment) because the deal will be debated on Saturday and then you’ll have to have the legislation brought forward.

‘There are discussions taking place about when is the right time to put an amendment down and, to be frank, I think on Saturday we should just vote the deal down, because it is such a bad deal.

‘And then maybe the Government will wake up and start working with other political parties about a sensible deal the British people can have before them.’

Last night Labour’s Peter Kyle, the mover behind legislation to force a second referendum, indicated he might still attempt to force an amendment through on Saturday.

He tweeted: ‘Our proposal was always about consensus and still is. We have the amendment drafted, we have bags of support for it, and tomorrow (Friday) lunchtime will take the decision about when we’ll table it.’

The plan to amend the deal on Saturday is thought to have been quietly pulled in order to give it the best chance to succeed in future.

A source familiar with the campaign said: ‘The focus on Saturday has to be stopping the deal. The best chance of getting a ‘People’s Vote’ may well be after this deal is defeated.’

Had MPs managed to successfully amend the deal to add a second referendum it is likely Downing Street would have pulled it entirely before it actually came to a final vote. Mr Johnson’s government has repeatedly made clear its implacable opposition to a second public vote.

The decision by Remainer MPs to back away yesterday followed confusion over whether Labour would actually back a second referendum in a vote on ‘Super Saturday’. 

Mr McDonnell told the BBC’s Today programme: ‘There are discussions taking place about when is the right time to put an amendment down and, to be frank, I think on Saturday we should just vote the deal down, because it is such a bad deal’

Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote’

Speaking soon after it was announced a deal had been done, party leader Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote.’

What will happen on ‘Super Saturday’?

The Commons will kick off tomorrow at 9.30am with a statement from the PM on the European Council.

That could last between an hour and two hours.

After that, the debate on the crucial motion to approve the Brexit deal will begin.

There is no finish time set on the Commons business papers, and this could well run until late in the afternoon. 

At the end of that debate there will be votes on any amendments.

An SNP bid to revoke Article 50 is expected to be defeated.

But the Oliver Letwin amendment could be the crucial moment. 

That effectively deletes the key parts of the government’s motion seeking approval for the deal.

If passed, the provisions in the Remainer law known as the Benn Act will not be met – and the PM will be legally obliged to beg the EU for an extension.  

However, he added he did not ‘suspect’ that the option of holding a second referendum vote would arise on Saturday, when Parliament is due to give its verdict on Mr Johnson’s agreement.

He then described reports that Labour could back such a vote as ‘high-level speculation on a hypothetical question’.

In a sign of the deep split within the party, members of Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet have since said they plan to make the ‘argument’ for a second referendum to the Prime Minister themselves.

The Liberal Democrats said they would vote for the deal at its third reading if a referendum was attached to it.

Former Tory backbencher Sir Oliver had led the attempt to change the timetable for tomorrow’s sitting – allowing for amendments to be tabled and voted on.

It passed by 287 votes to 275, and means an amendment to Mr Johnson’s Brexit plans to include a proposed second referendum is now possible. Sir Oliver suggested that it could close a loophole in the so-called Benn Act – which requires the PM to seek a Brexit delay if he does not have a deal by October 19. The law only compels the PM to seek an extension if MPs fail to pass a motion.

He told MPs: ‘That will enable those of us, like me, who wish to support and carry through and eventually see the ratification of this deal, not to put us in the position of allowing the Government off the Benn Act hook on Saturday.’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the European Council summit at EU headquarters in Brussels, October 17

The original plan advanced by proponents of a ‘confirmatory vote’ was that MPs would pass an amendment making the Brexit deal conditional on a referendum. Once it was amended, they would then vote with the Government for the deal.

But a number of Labour MPs have concerns about anything that would appear to be offering support to Mr Johnson, and a potentially larger group have concerns about supporting a referendum at all.

Earlier this month, 19 Labour MPs in favour of leaving the EU with a deal wrote to Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, asking the pair to ‘work night and day’ to secure a Withdrawal Agreement they could back.

It remains to be seen whether those backbenchers will support Mr Johnson tomorrow.

Yesterday, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove told BBC Politics Live there would not be a second referendum.

‘Ain’t gonna happen,’ he said. ‘Ain’t gonna be no second referendum. It just won’t happen.’

Will MPs support Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan? And what will happen if Remainer rebels succeed in hijacking the PM’s deal? All the key questions answered ahead of ‘Super Saturday’

Boris Johnson is locked in a frantic race against time as he tries to persuade a majority of MPs to back his Brexit deal at a crunch vote in the House of Commons tomorrow. 

The Prime Minister has less than 24 hours to drum up support for the deal he unexpectedly struck with the EU yesterday. 

If MPs vote for the deal the UK will be on course for an orderly departure from the bloc on October 31.

But if they vote against it or back a Remainer amendment which would scupper the PM’s plan the UK’s Brexit fate will be plunged into uncertainty. 

Here is a run down of how ‘Super Saturday’ could play out and the events that could follow in the run up to the Halloween Brexit deadline.

What is happening on Saturday? 

Mr Johnson will formally present his divorce accord to the Commons and ask MPs to vote for it. 

The day will start with the PM setting out the terms of the agreement in a statement to the House which is due to begin shortly after 9.30am. 

Following a lengthy debate MPs will then vote on the deal – and any amendments which are selected by Commons Speaker John Bercow – at approximately 2.30pm. 

Boris Johnson, pictured in Brussels yesterday, will present his Brexit deal to the House of Commons tomorrow

What amendments have been tabled and what would they do? 

At the moment there are three amendments which have been officially put forward by MPs and which could be put to a vote. 

One from an SNP MP would force the government to revoke Article 50 while another from the SNP would reject the PM’s deal and demand a Brexit delay until January 31 in order to make time for an election. 

If either of those are selected they are very unlikely to secure the backing of a majority of MPs. 

But the third amendment has a much better chance of passing and would represent a major headache for the government. 

What is the third amendment? 

A cross-party group of MPs led by former Tory Sir Oliver Letwin and Labour MP Hilary Benn have put forward a proposal which, if agreed, would withhold approval for the PM’s deal until the government has passed all the legislation needed to deliver an orderly Brexit. 

In simple terms the PM’s deal would still be alive but it would not have been formally backed by MPs. 

That would mean Mr Johnson would still have to comply with the Benn Act and ask the EU for an extension.

The anti-No Deal law states that an extension must be asked for unless a deal has been agreed by MPs by close of play tomorrow.

The amendment is therefore designed to act as a further protection against a No Deal divorce from the EU.

The PM would still be able to move forward with his deal but the UK would almost certainly not leave the EU on October 31.  

The cross-party nature of the amendment – and the expected backing of Labour – means that if it is selected by Mr Bercow and put to a vote it has a good chance of being agreed.  

What will the government do if the Letwin amendment is passed by MPs? 

Mr Johnson will have two options. He could choose to play ball with the amendment and bring forward all the laws needed to make Brexit happen. 

But this would be risky because the PM would not know if there was a majority of MPs in favour of his deal which means it could all fall apart further down the line. 

It would also force him to ask the EU to delay Brexit – something he does not want to do.

The second option would be for the premier to disregard the amendment, accuse MPs of hijacking the Brexit process and then demand a general election.

Will there be a second referendum amendment?  

Currently it is unclear whether pro-EU MPs will pull the trigger on trying to force a second referendum amid concerns they may not have the numbers to win. 

It is thought that such an amendment would grant approval to the PM’s deal but only if it was then put back to the people. 

If the amendment is tabled and selected it will have the potential to dramatically alter the Brexit process. 

What happens if MPs vote in favour of a second referendum? 

If a second referendum amendment is agreed by the Commons tomorrow it would trigger a volatile chain of events that are hard to predict. 

The first question for the PM in the event such an amendment is agreed is whether he would proceed to push a vote on his deal. 

Votes on amendments always take place before the vote on the substantive motion which means the PM will have the ability to pull the division on his deal if he has just been defeated on holding a second referendum. 

Sir Oliver Letwin, pictured in the House of Commons yesterday, has tabled an amendment which would bolster anti-No Deal protections

Sir Oliver’s amendment has the support of Hilary Benn, pictured in London on October 8, as well as a large number of cross-party MPs

The PM is adamant that he does not want a second referendum and if he was to pull the vote on his deal and then refuse to present it to the Commons for a second time he would likely pivot to try to force a general election. 

The Benn Act states that the PM must ask the EU for a Brexit delay if no agreement has been backed by MPs by close of play tomorrow. 

Assuming he then complied with the Act and the EU granted a delay the PM would then seemingly have cleared a path to an election because opposition leaders have said they would agree a snap poll if a No Deal split has been ruled out. 

What happens if MPs vote in favour of a second referendum and the PM pushes ahead with a vote on his deal?

Given the PM’s opposition to a second referendum it is unlikely he would proceed with a vote on the deal itself if MPs pass an amendment in favour of a ‘People’s Vote’. 

But if he did it is likely the deal would be agreed by MPs – the referendum provision would allow many critics to vote for the deal in the belief that it would be rejected by the country when pitched against Remain at a national ballot.  

If Mr Johnson was willing to go along with the second referendum plan – again, this is extremely unlikely – he would then have to ask the EU for a delay to make time for the vote to be held, potentially in the first half of next year. 

If Mr Johnson allowed the vote to go ahead and the deal plus a referendum was agreed to but he then refused to put in place the necessary measures to hold that ballot it would be up to rebel MPs to take control of the Commons to push through the necessary legislation to make a ‘People’s Vote’ happen. 

If they failed there would then almost certainly be a general election because it would literally be the only option left. 

What happens if MPs vote in favour of a second referendum but then reject the PM’s deal? 

This feels incredibly unlikely because if an amendment is put forward to hold a public vote on the PM’s deal and it was passed by MPs there is no reason to think that majority would disappear on the subsequent vote on the amended deal. 

But if for some weird reason it happened it would trigger the same outcomes as if there is no second referendum amendment and MPs simply reject the PM’s deal.

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker pictured at an event in London on Wednesday, will play a key role on ‘Super Saturday’ because he will be in charge of selecting which amendments are voted on

What happens if MPs reject the PM’s Brexit deal?

In the event that MPs vote down the PM’s new accord there are a variety of different ways forward which Mr Johnson could choose from. 

Option one: If the deal was narrowly defeated and Mr Johnson believed there was a path to victory he could ask the EU for a delay – he will be legally required to do so under the Benn Act – and then either hold a second vote next week or ask Brussels to tweak the deal before a second vote. 

Should the EU agree to make changes the PM could ask MPs to vote again and if it then passed the UK would be on course to leave the EU with an agreement but probably after the October 31 deadline. 

If the EU refused to budge or if MPs stuck to their guns then the UK would be on course to quit the bloc without an agreement.  

Option two: The PM could refuse to ask for a Brexit delay and opt to resign instead. A government official would then likely ask the EU for an extension in order to comply with the Benn Act.

Assuming the EU granted an extension a general election would then follow. 

Option three: The PM could ask the EU to delay the UK’s departure from the bloc in order to trigger an election in a final attempt to break the Brexit stalemate. 

Brussels has suggested it would grant an extension for an election and if everything went to plan there would then be a snap poll held before the end of 2019. 

Option four: The PM could ask for the EU to grant a delay and the bloc could refuse on the grounds that is has had enough of the ongoing Brexit uncertainty. 

That would prompt the PM to either put his deal to a second vote in the Commons or to pivot to a No Deal divorce. 

If the PM won the second vote on his deal an orderly divorce would beckon. If he lost the UK would be on course to leave the EU without an agreement. 

What happens if MPs vote in favour of the PM’s deal? 

This would be the most straight forward option from a ‘what happens next’ perspective. 

The final vote on the deal is expected to be very tight and nobody knows for certain which way it will go. 

But if the deal were to be agreed by the Commons the government could then bring forward the laws needed to enact the UK’s departure from the EU. 

The accord would then be put to the European Parliament to be ratified. Assuming MEPs did not block the deal the UK would then leave the EU with an accord on October 31. 

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