The European Union is expected to delay Britain’s departure from the bloc after Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost a key vote in Parliament on Tuesday and halted ratification of his Brexit agreement.
Britain was supposed to leave the EU on Oct. 31 and it’s not clear how long EU leaders will extend the deadline, although they have been considering a three-month delay.
The dramatic twist came late Tuesday when Mr. Johnson suddenly paused the ratification process for the Brexit deal he struck with EU leaders last week. His decision came after Members of Parliament declined to speed up the approval process for a bill implementing the deal. Mr. Johnson has been adamant that Britain will leave the EU on Oct. 31 and he wanted the legislation finalized in just three days in order to meet the deadline. But MPs refused and voted 322 to 308 to reject that timetable, arguing that they needed more time to scrutinize the 115-page bill.
After the vote, the Prime Minister said he would stop ratification and leave it to EU leaders to decide if the deadline should be extended. “We now face further uncertainty. The EU must make up their minds over how to answer Parliament’s request,” he told MPs. Mr. Johnson had already been forced by Parliament to seek a three-month extension to the deadline last Saturday, but he has insisted that he was compelled to make that request and that he didn’t really want a delay.
EU leaders had held off on a decision in the hope that Mr. Johnson could get the deal through Parliament before the end of the month as he promised. That now seems unlikely. After Tuesday’s vote, Donald Tusk, the head of the EU Council, which represents the leaders, said he would recommend that they accept Britain’s request for an extension. He did not specify how long the delay might be.
The Prime Minister’s move to hold off on ratification came moments after he’d won a rare victory in the House of Commons. Members of Parliament voted 329 to 299 to approve the Brexit bill in principle, the first stage in the legislative process. The approval was significant because it marked the first time MPs had supported any Brexit deal.
Mr. Johnson acknowledged the achievement after the vote, telling MPs: “Can I say in response how welcome it is, even joyful that for the first time in this long saga, this House has actually accepted its responsibilities together, come together, and embraced a deal?” He added that just a few weeks ago “nobody thought we could secure the approval of the House for a new deal and we should not overlook the significance of this moment.”
But it was a second vote on Tuesday that spoiled the victory. All day, Mr. Johnson had been pushing for a compressed timeline to get the bill through all of its stages. He’d been wary that MPs would use any extra time to modify the bill with a series of amendments that would water it down or include a referendum. And during the debate on Tuesday, he warned MPs that if there was a delay, he would withdraw the Brexit deal and push for an election. “I will in no way allow months more of this,” he said, referring to the Brexit debate.
His move to speed up the process was slammed by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. He called it "an abuse of Parliament and a disgraceful attempt to dodge accountability, scrutiny and any kind of proper debate.” However, Mr. Corbyn said he was prepared to work out a timeline for the bill with Mr. Johnson.
Despite the setback on timing, Mr. Johnson is in a good position to get the legislation finalized and approved by MPs. He has managed to unite his Conservative colleagues around the agreement, something his predecessor, Theresa May, failed to accomplish. He also succeeded in getting 19 Labour MPs to vote in favour of the deal on Tuesday, a critical breakthrough since the Conservatives don’t hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons. And he managed to win the vote without the backing of the Tory’s ally, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which opposed the agreement.
It’s not clear if Mr. Johnson can keep that coalition of votes together through what will now be an extended ratification process, since some Labour MPs backed the deal at this stage in order to push for amendments. But he is still far closer to success than Ms. May, who saw her Brexit agreement rejected by MPs three times.