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Boris Johnson wants Brexit by October 31. Parliament won’t let him have it.

After advancing the Brexit bill, Parliament is still denying the prime minister an October 31 exit.

Leaders Attend European Council Meeting
Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Brussels on October 17, 2019.
Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson just secured a Brexit victory — only to suffer another crushing defeat. That’s just how things go in UK politics these days.

Earlier on Tuesday, the UK Parliament voted to advance Johnson’s Brexit bill, the legislation that will put his Brexit deal into UK domestic law.

But after giving Johnson’s deal the okay to advance — a step his predecessor never came close to reaching — Parliament rejected Johnson’s rapid timetable to get the Brexit legislation approved, indicating it wanted more time to scrutinize the bill.

That would mean a Brexit delay, past the October 31 deadline. Johnson was forced, by law, to request a three-month extension over the weekend. The EU is considering the UK’s delay request but has not yet approved it.

Johnson has said he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit beyond October 31. So now the prime minister pausing the Brexit legislation altogether, even though it just got approval to proceed.

Still, Johnson made it clear that he wants this deal to pass.

“One way or another we will leave the EU with this deal to which this House has just given its assent,” Johnson said Tuesday, after his defeat.

To achieve that, a Brexit delay looks inevitable. But Johnson’s dream of leaving the EU on October 31 seems all but dead.

Johnson wants an October 31 exit or bust. What now?

Johnson brought back a revised Brexit plan from Brussels last Thursday and scheduled a Saturday vote on it. But Parliament foiled his plans by approving an amendment that deferred approval for his Brexit deal until all the necessary legislation was passed, thus forcing him to seek a three-month extension from the EU.

Johnson did so because the law forced him to, not because he wanted to. He sent a second letter informing the EU that he still wanted to get Brexit done by October 31.

He forged ahead with that plan. On Monday, the government published the 100-plus page Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), which takes the Brexit deal and puts it into UK law. And he wanted this massive, consequential piece of legislation to get through Parliament by this Thursday.

MPs agreed to move the bill forward in its “second reading,” which means Parliament agrees to the deal in principle, but it hasn’t yet given final approval to the legislation.

But enough MPs bristled at the idea of ramming this legislation through Parliament in three days, so they voted down what’s called a “program motion,” which set out Johnson’s aggressive timetable. Parliament basically said it wanted more time.

Johnson doesn’t want Parliament to have any more time, though. While advancing the Brexit bill might indicate he has parliamentary support for his Brexit plan, perhaps with some minor tweaks, Johnson doesn’t trust what he views as a “Remain”-minded Parliament to actually pass his Brexit agenda.

Ahead of the vote on Tuesday, Johnson threatened to completely scrap all of the Brexit legislation if the program motion failed — and said he’d call for an election so he could get a Parliament that supports him.

If Parliament “refused to allow Brexit to happen and instead gets its way,” Johnson said Tuesday, then “the bill will have to be pulled and we will have to go forward with a general election. I will argue at that election: ‘Let’s get Brexit done.’”

Johnson still needs two-thirds of MPs to support any election plans if he takes that route, and MPs have rejected his attempts to call an election twice before. The opposition, specifically the Labour Party, can see the polls aren’t looking all that good for them, and it may decide it’s easier to frustrate Johnson’s Brexit agenda with the current Parliament rather than risk a big electoral defeat that will leave them with even less leverage to influence the Brexit process.

Labour “is very likely to say, ‘No way, Boris. We’re not going to do this; we’re not going to have an election. We need a little more time,’” Harold Clarke, an expert on voting and elections at the University of Texas Dallas, told me. “And they’ll delay and delay on that, hoping the mood of the country will change. You’ve got this sort of perfect deadlock.”

Right now, Johnson has put the legislation on hold, though not pulling the bill entirely. But he made no mention of any election when he announced his decision to put the Brexit bill on pause, despite his earlier threats.

Now everyone will look toward the EU to see if it’s willing to grant the extension. All 27 EU leaders must agree unanimously to postpone the current deadline. Parliament forced Johnson to ask the EU for a three-month delay, until January 31, 2020. The EU can go for that. It can also opt for a much shorter delay. Or it can give the UK a lot more time.

All of which means nothing is settled for Brexit. Parliament agreed to advance the bill, but not at Johnson’s accelerated pace. And now the EU must decide if it will offer a new Brexit deadline — avoiding a no-deal Brexit, but prolonging the uncertainty for a third time.

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