Brexit delay looms after MPs demand more time to debate

Last Updated 22 October 2019, 20:23 IST

British MPs gave their initial approval Tuesday to legislation enacting Prime Minister Boris Johnson's EU divorce deal -- but rejected his plan to rush it through parliament, opening the door for yet another Brexit delay.

Johnson immediately announced he would pause the process of trying to ratify the text he struck with European Union leaders last week, and said the EU should consider Britain's request for a delay beyond October 31.

Responding to the vote, European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said European Council president Donald Tusk was consulting EU leaders about a possible postponement.

Johnson won a significant victory when the House of Commons voted by 329 to 299 to approve in principal a bill that implements his Brexit deal.

But just minutes later, MPs rejected by 322 to 308 his timetable motion demanding they push through the bill in three days to allow Britain's departure at the end of this month.

Johnson has vowed to stick to the October 31 date and said Britain would step up preparations in case of a disorderly "no deal" exit.

On Saturday, he was forced to ask EU leaders to delay Brexit after MPs refused to approve his deal -- despite having once said he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than see the deadline postponed.

Ratifying the bill before October 31 would have allowed him to avoid this legally mandated delay, which was set provisionally at three months but is open for EU leaders to amend.

With speedy ratification now in doubt, a postponement seems likely.

"The EU must now make up their minds over how to answer parliament's request for a delay," Johnson told MPs.

He added: "I will speak to EU member states about their intentions. Until they have reached a decision, until we have reached a decision I will say, we will pause this legislation.

"Let me be clear -- our policy remains that we should not delay, that we should leave the European Union on October 31. That is what I will say to the EU."

Ahead of the vote, Johnson warned he would seek an election to break the political deadlock, although this requires the support of the Labour party.

Johnson, a leading Brexit campaigner in the 2016 EU referendum, took office in July promising to deliver on the result come what may.

He defied expectations in striking a new divorce deal at a Brussels summit last month, and despite Saturday's setback, has now shown he has the numbers to get it through parliament.

But to stick to his Brexit deadline he needs to get the deal through in the next week -- and has no majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.

Opposition parties, many of whom dislike his divorce deal, said it was "ludicrous" to expect proper scrutiny of the legislation in less than three days.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has called for a second referendum on Brexit, said Johnson was trying to "blindside" MPs into supporting a "rotten bill".

The Democratic Unionist Party, Johnson's Northern Irish allies, accused him of duping them about new trading arrangements for the province.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he "nearly choked" when he heard Johnson's assurances, adding: "The prime minister thinks I can't read the agreement."

The timetable motion was intended to ensure the House of Commons debated the bill quickly, allowing it to go onto the unelected upper House of Lords.

Johnson warned that seeking further time risked a "no-deal" exit if the EU refused a delay.

Speaking before the vote, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he saw "no justification at this stage" for further delay.

"It's important for it to be announced today, because otherwise there will no option except 'no deal', which is not the solution we prefer."

Businesses and markets on both sides of the Channel fear a "no-deal" Brexit, where Britain severs ties with its closest trading partner with no new plans in place after 46 years of integration.

The deal covers EU citizens' rights, Britain's financial settlements, a post-Brexit transition period until at least the end of 2020 and new trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

It also sets out vague plans for a loose free trade agreement with the EU after Brexit.

An earlier Brexit text agreed by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May was rejected three times by MPs earlier this year.

(Published 22 October 2019, 18:48 IST)

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