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The last 72 hours in Brexit, explained

Parliament rebels, Johnson writes letters, and everyone gets ready to fight over Brexit legislation this week.

An effigy depicting Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with its hand inside a puppet of Johnson in the middle of a London street filled with Brexit protesters carrying EU flags.
Protesters take to the streets of London on October 19, 2019, to call for a new Brexit vote.
Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

It should have been the decisive moment for Brexit: a vote on the revamped deal to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union by October 31.

But “Super Saturday” went bust in the UK Parliament after lawmakers voted to withhold support on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal until all the necessary legislation is passed, forcing the prime minister to seek an extension to prevent against an “accidental” crash-out on October 31.

Johnson is required by UK law to send the EU a letter requesting a three-month delay to January 2020. But, as with all things Brexit, not even the simple stuff is simple. As Brexiter-in-chief, he did not do so willingly. He left the extension letter unsigned and included a signed second letter that made it clear Johnson thinks postponing Brexit would be bad.

The EU is considering the delay request even as Johnson is racing to finalize all the Brexit legislation to achieve a Halloween Brexit.

As all this was going on, hundreds of thousands marched in London to demand a second national referendum — another vote put to the people — on Brexit.

Right now, support for his Brexit deal remains tight — “a coin toss,” as Alexandra Cirone, a politics professor at Cornell University, described it last week. That’s still the case this week, even as members of Parliament asked for a little extra time to deliberate the deal and legislation.

Johnson’s government published the withdrawal bill legislation late Monday, though some in Parliament are already trying, once again, to make things very difficult.

So expect another wild week in British politics as it’s still undecided whether the UK will exit the EU in 10 days time. But here’s a brief recap of what went down while you were probably not watching Parliament on Saturday and what’s happened since in order to help you understand what might happen next.

Parliament foils Boris Johnson’s vote on his Brexit deal

The fate of Brexit could have been decided in a historic Saturday session in Parliament. But members of Parliament (MPs) had a different idea.

On Thursday, Johnson secured a revised Brexit agreement that scrapped the Irish backstop that had formed the bulk of the opposition to Theresa May’s Brexit plan among hardcore Brexit supporters. He planned a straight up or down vote — support this deal or not — this weekend, until Sir Oliver Letwin, an independent MP, introduced an amendment that destroyed the government’s plans.

MPs backed, 322-306, an amendment that essentially postponed the final decision on Johnson’s Brexit deal until the accompanying legislation — known as the withdrawal agreement bill (WAB) — was also passed into law. Johnson’s Brexit deal is a treaty with the EU so it needs to be passed into domestic law. Which means two things technically need to happen before October 31: a vote approving the Brexit deal (the “meaningful vote” MPs awarded themselves in 2018) and another approving all the legislation.

MPs worried that, with less than two weeks to scrutinize this generation-defining legislation, something might go awry, so they wanted to bake in more time — if necessary — for reviewing and voting on the bill. In other words, they forced Johnson to ask for a three-month extension whether or not his Brexit deal passed.

Johnson, of course, staked his premiership on the promise that the UK would leave the EU by October 31, so he doesn’t want to seek another delay. It also put off the moment of reckoning: whether Parliament will ultimately back his deal or deliver him a defeat, as it did his predecessor.

Johnson sent a letter to the EU because he had to. Then he sent another letter to the EU because he wanted to.

Johnson, after the Letwin vote, said he would not seek an extension and still try to leave on October 31. The problem is, however, Johnson is bound by law to at least ask the EU for a Brexit extension — and there didn’t seem to be any obvious loophole to get out of it.

So Johnson begrudgingly sent a letter seeking a delay until January 31, 2020, but he did not sign it. In a second letter, which he did sign, Johnson basically said, “Even though I was forced to ask for an extension, I think we can get this done by October 31.”

“Although I would have preferred a different result today, the government will press ahead with ratification and introduce the necessary legislation early next week,” he wrote. “I remain confident that we will complete that process by 31 October.” (A third letter, from Britain’s ambassador to the EU, was also included.)

European Council President Donald Tusk said it had received the extension letter and it’s consulting with EU leaders on how to react. The Scottish courts are currently reviewing whether Johnson’s second letter was an attempt to block an extension but it looks like the EU is going to basically ignore the stunt and continue to consider whether to extend Brexit or not.

All 27 EU leaders must unanimously agree, and it’s likely they will grant some sort of extension, as the EU doesn’t want to be seen as forcing a no-deal Brexit. But it looks like the EU isn’t rushing to make a decision, either; leaders are going to wait a bit to see how the Brexit debate plays out in Parliament this week — which means this could come down to the wire. For now, the Brexit deadline remains October 31.

Thousands marched for a second referendum

As this drama was going on in Parliament, hundreds of thousands of Brits marched to demand another vote on Brexit.

Supporters of a second referendum — led by the “People’s Vote” campaign — argue that UK citizens didn’t really know what they were voting for in June 2016 when they were asked to choose between “leave” or “remain.” Now that they’ve seen the reality — specifically, Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal — citizens should have another say as to whether this is the Brexit they want or whether it should be scrapped altogether.

But a second referendum — or confirmatory vote, as it’s called — is very tricky. Parliament has discussed such a confirmatory vote, which would put the Brexit deal (first May’s, now Johnson’s) back to the people. For one, it could take months to pull off, forcing a much longer Brexit extension, if one is even available.

There’s also no clarity on how the question might be phrased: Would it be a choice between Boris’s deal and remaining in the EU? Or would it be a clean 2016 do-over of Leave versus Remain? Could a referendum offer three choices: remain, leave without a deal, or Johnson’s deal? And then what happens if the catastrophic no-deal outcome wins?

Brexiteers argue a second referendum would be undemocratic, an attempt to undo the will of the people as evinced in 2016. Proponents of a second referendum say that the beauty of democracy is being able to change one’s mind, especially when the circumstances change.

Meanwhile, UK politicians are wary about backing a second referendum. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party has offered a muddled message on a second referendum, despite many in his party wanting him to support it. But Labour has Leave voters within its ranks, too, and the political risk to Corbyn is real.

Some Labour MPs are expected to table an amendment to the Brexit deal legislation that would call for a second referendum, but it’s not clear it will have the votes to succeed as MPs have been hesitant to support it outright. So far, Parliament voted just to see how much support a second referendum would have among MPs, and it rejected such a plan 280-292. Some months (and protests) later, Parliament’s reluctance to back a second referendum hasn’t budged all that much.

Speaker of the House John Bercow said Boris Johnson can’t get another vote on his deal just yet

After a pretty rough weekend, Johnson got some more bad news on Monday. Speaker of the House John Bercow, who’s spoiled the government’s plans a few times during Brexit, ruled that Johnson couldn’t bring his Brexit deal for another vote on Monday because it would be “repetitive and disorderly to do so.”

Bercow’s decision isn’t all that surprising: He made a similar call when it came to May’s attempt to bring her Brexit deal again. He argued, as Parliament’s de facto arbiter, that the motion — to vote on the Brexit deal — “is in substance the same as Saturday’s motion, and the house has decided the matter.” In other words, the House voted to withhold approval until all the legislation has passed; there’d be no point in bringing the first matter to a vote again.

Johnson probably knew this was going to be the verdict, too, and may have just been trying to make a point to his supporters and Brexiteers that Parliament and their spoiler of a Speaker (who’s set to retire October 31, incidentally) is just trying to frustrate Brexit. (Bercow himself doesn’t vote.) This was a minor, not entirely unexpected, setback for Johnson. But the real drama is expected Tuesday.

The Brexit deal legislation could be voted on as early as Tuesday. Parliament wants some tweaks.

Parliament said on Saturday that it wanted to defer a final decision on the Brexit deal until all that legislation is passed.

On Monday, Johnson’s government published the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill that would put the Brexit deal into law. It’s 115 pages, and MPs are still poring over it — with many already complaining that this process is being rushed, especially since the government hasn’t even published an economic assessment yet. Also, the bill repeals the law that requires a “meaningful vote” for the Brexit deal, meaning the actual vote on the agreement would no longer have to happen. Once (or if) this bill becomes law, at least from the UK side, Brexit can happen.

And MPs are expected to be voting on “second reading” of the bill on Tuesday. There’s still a few more processes to go through before it becomes law, but as the Guardian points out, it will be a good test of support on where Johnson’s Brexit deal stands — and whether the UK actually needs an extension or might be able to pass all the legislation before October 31.

The problem is, once it enters this next phase, MPs can start adding amendments. Opposition lawmakers are already trying to figure out ways to spoil the legislation so that it would definitely need more time to pass, thereby pushing the EU toward postponing Brexit. Or, MPs might amend it in such a way that Johnson wouldn’t want the legislation to pass in that form so he’ll scrap it altogether.

MPs are chewing over two possibilities: an amendment that would seek to keep the UK within the EU customs union and another that would require a second referendum before any Brexit deal can be approved.

There’s no way Johnson would support an amendment that locked the UK into the EU customs union, which avoids tariffs and duties among EU states and has the bloc trade as one unit with the rest of the world. A customs union would prevent Britain from pursuing the independent trade deals that it wants, so Brexiteers like Johnson won’t tolerate it — which means he likely won’t proceed with the domestic legislation.

A second referendum amendment could make approval for Johnson’s deal dependent on a national vote, something Johnson definitely won’t want, either.

Johnson doesn’t have a majority in Parliament, which is why MPs keep blocking his agenda. But that doesn’t mean there is enough support for a customs union (the EU would have to go for this, too) or a second referendum — even among MPs who might be wary of Johnson’s Brexit deal.

Back in April, in the same vote where MPs decided they didn’t back a second referendum, a vote for staying in the customs union came very close to gaining support, 273-276. Whether it could prevail this week is an open question, but if it did, Johnson’s Brexit plans would be in tatters. Labour is trying to rally support, particularly for the customs union, but it’s likely going to need the backing of Conservative MPs who were kicked out of the party last month for openly defying Johnson. And that’s not going to be an easy task because while many don’t want a no-deal Brexit, they have their limits when it comes to how closely they’ll work with the Labour party.

So this week will be another showdown between the prime minister and Parliament. There’s Johnson, who’s desperately trying to cobble together support for his Brexit deal and the accompanying legislation so the UK and EU can divorce by the end of the month. And then there’s Parliament, caught in the middle, with some eager to support Johnson’s deal, some opposed, and some who see their chance to block Brexit running out.

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