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No delays, vows Johnson after humiliating Commons defeat

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2019-10-19 Toby Helm, Michael Savage and Daniel Boffey

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 (Provided by CityNews)

A defiant Boris Johnson will this weekend call on EU leaders to reject any extension to Brexit after he suffered a humiliating Commons defeat over his latest deal to leave the EU.

After his Brexit plans were thrown into fresh crisis when MPs voted by 322 to 306 to withhold approval for them, the prime minister was under huge pressure to write to the EU to ask for an extension until 31 January 2020, in order to comply with the law.

But with the deadline of 11pm last night approaching to comply with the terms of the Benn act, a government source made clear that Johnson would tell the EU there should be no delays. They also suggested he would put responsibility on any letter he sends on to parliament.

Also watch: Protesters celebrate as U.K. Parliament delays Brexit again (Provided by NBC News)

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A government source said it is clear “that the PM will not negotiate for an extension – he will tell EU leaders this weekend that there should be no delays, they should reject parliament’s letter asking for a delay, and we should get Brexit done on 31 October with our new deal so the country can move on.”

Earlier in the day, the result of the knife-edge vote to delay approval of the deal until Brexit legislation has been debated and passed through parliament was announced in a packed House of Commons as an estimated one million people marched on Parliament Square to demand a second referendum as a way to break the three-year Brexit deadlock.

As the news of Johnson’s latest and arguably most crushing defeat was broadcast to the marchers outside parliament, a huge roar went up from those who had travelled from all over the country to take part in the protest.

Supporters of a second referendum now plan to table an amendment to Brexit legislation to make approval of any deal conditional on another public vote, with the other option on the ballot paper being to remain in the EU. Immediately after the vote Johnson said he was “not daunted or dismayed” by the defeat but would push on with tabling the withdrawal agreement bill needed to implement Brexit, next week.

Pre-empting questions about whether he would comply with the Benn act, which requires him to have written to the EU to ask for an extension before the deadline last night, Johnson chose his words carefully saying: “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so.”

Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson sitting in a suit and tie: The DUP MPs, from left, Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson, listen to the debate. Photograph: House of Commons/PA © PA The DUP MPs, from left, Nigel Dodds, Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson, listen to the debate. Photograph: House of Commons/PA a man wearing a suit and tie: Boris Johnson says he is ‘not daunted or dismayed’ by the vote. © PA Boris Johnson says he is ‘not daunted or dismayed’ by the vote.

However, MPs were quick to point out that the prime minister’s remarks did not mean he was ruling out sending a letter, but merely that he was saying he would refuse to engage in talks on the length and terms of an extension, decisions which will anyway be in the gift of the EU.

Last night it was expected that Johnson would send the letter to Brussels before the deadline to avoid the possibility of being hauled before the courts. However, it was thought he would also tell the EU that a delay would not in his view be needed as he was confident the withdrawal bill would pass through both houses of parliament before 31 October.

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, told the Commons: “The prime minister must now comply with the law. He can no longer use the threat of a no-deal crash-out to blackmail MPs to support his sell-out deal.” The vote was swung by a decision by the 10 DUP MPs, who have propped up the Tory administration since the 2017 general election, to vote for the amendment demanding approval of his deal be withheld.

MPs said the DUP only decided to vote in favour of the amendment tabled by the Tory MP Oliver Letwin, rather than abstain, one minute before the doors of the voting lobbies were shut.

Ten former Conservative MPs including ex-cabinet ministers Philip Hammond and David Gauke, supported the amendment. Six Labour MPs rebelled against the party line to vote against the amendment (Kevin Barron, Caroline Flint, Ronnie Campbell, Kate Hoey, Jim Fitzpatrick and John Mann). Another three abstained, Melanie Onn, Rosie Cooper and Sarah Champion.

After the vote, the leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said the government would attempt to hold another “meaningful vote” on the Johnson deal on Monday in an attempt to seize back the initiative, though the Speaker, John Bercow, suggested that if the purpose of doing so was to override yesterday’s vote then he might not allow it. Saying he would reflect over the weekend on what to do, Bercow described the move as “curious” and said pointedly: “The government is not the arbiter of what is orderly.”

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, tweeted that it would “consider the outcome of today’s vote for the Letwin amendment on Monday”. He appeared to applaud those who had marched in favour of another referendum adding: “Whatever happens next, the marches outside the parliament show just how important a close EU-UK future relationship is.”

Dawn Butler, Jeremy Corbyn looking at a man in a suit and tie: Jeremy Corbyn says the deal ‘risks people’s jobs’. Photograph: House of Commons/PA © PA Jeremy Corbyn says the deal ‘risks people’s jobs’. Photograph: House of Commons/PA

A spokeswoman for the European commission called for clarification from Downing Street. “The commission takes note of the vote in the House of Commons today on the so-called Letwin amendment meaning that the withdrawal agreement itself was not to be put to the vote today,” she said. “It will be for the UK government to inform us about the next steps as soon as possible.”

Under the terms of the Benn act any extension granted by the EU will end as soon as a Brexit deal has passed through the Commons and Lords.

The government is expected to hold a second reading vote on the withdrawal agreement bill on Tuesday, but there were signs that its passage would be difficult and lengthy. MPs opposed to the Johnson deal and those in favour of a second referendum are expected to table numerous amendments, meaning it may not pass by the current Brexit deadline of 31 October.

Johnson has insisted numerous times that he will not ask for an extension to Brexit under any circumstances. Last month he said he would rather “be dead in a ditch” than do so.

On Saturday night there was speculation that the DUP – which came out strongly against Johnson’s deal because it establishes a customs border in the Irish Sea, and deprives them of a veto over future arrangements for Northern Ireland – might come round to the idea of a second referendum to end the impasse, and safeguard the province’s interests.

After spelling out the reasons why his party rejected the Johnson deal, the party’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson told MPs that the DUP would do everything it could during the passage of the withdrawal agreement bill to protect Northern Irish interests while the party leader at Westminster Nigel Dodds said it would scrutinise all amendments very closely.

“We would be failing in our duty if we do not use every strategy which is available to try to get guarantees, changes, alterations which will safeguard the interests of the United Kingdom,” Wilson told the Commons.

Earlier Johnson had described his Brexit plan, approved on Thursday by EU leaders, as “a great prospect and a great deal” and urged MPs to vote for it. “It is my judgment we have reached the best possible solution,” he said.

Corbyn told MPs that “this deal risks people’s jobs, rights at work, our environment and our NHS. We must be honest about what this deal means for our manufacturing industry and people’s jobs.”

Letwin told the Commons he had not tabled his amendment to scupper Brexit but to avoid a No Deal outcome. Johnson’s strategy was, he said, to present MPs with a stark choice between his deal or no deal, which was not acceptable.

“I understand that strategy but we can’t be sure that such a threat from the prime minister will work and I, despite my support for the prime minister’s deal, do not believe it would be responsible to put the nation at risk by making that threat.”

The public are evenly divided on whether there should be another referendum, according to the latest Opinium/Observer poll. Some 42% think there should be another public vote, while 43% disagree.

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