Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to get the U.K. Parliament to approve his divorce deal with the European Union was thrown into doubt Saturday, as legislators were first given a vote on whether — yet again — to delay their final decision on Brexit.
At a rare weekend sitting of Parliament, Johnson implored MPs to ratify the deal he struck this week with the other 27 EU leaders. He said members of the House of Commons should “come together as democrats to end this debilitating feud” that has wracked the country for more than three years.
“Now is the time for this great House of Commons to come together … as I believe people at home are hoping and expecting,” Johnson said.
But he may not get the vote he craves. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said he would first allow a vote on an amendment that essentially puts the vote on the deal off until another day. Those behind the amendment say it will remove the risk that the U.K. could stumble out of the bloc without a deal on Oct. 31 because the law is not in place.
If the amendment passes, it also will force Johnson to seek a delay from the EU to Britain’s departure, due to take place in less than two weeks on Oct. 31.
The prime minister signalled that he would do that under duress. He is compelled by law to ask for the extension, but he said “it cannot change my judgment that further delay is pointless, expensive and deeply corrosive of public trust.”
Since striking a deal with the EU on Thursday, Johnson has been imploring and arm-twisting both Conservative and opposition legislators as he tries to win majority support for his deal.
Johnson’s Conservative Party holds only 288 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, so he will have to rely on support from other parties and independent legislators to get over the line.
The result looks set to be close, although Johnson has had some success winning over both hard-core Conservative Brexiteers and a handful of opposition Labour legislators who represent pro-Brexit parts of the country.
Ending ‘painful chapter in our history’
Johnson hopes for success in getting a fractious Parliament to back the deal after his predecessor, Theresa May, failed three times to get legislators behind her plan.
He said in The Sun newspaper on Saturday that a vote for the plan would bring a “painful chapter in our history” to an end.
As legislators gathered inside Parliament — their first Saturday sitting since the 1982 Falklands War — tens of thousands of anti-Brexit demonstrators were expected to march on the building, calling for a new referendum on whether to leave the EU or remain.
Many legislators want to rule out the possibility that Britain could crash out of the bloc without a deal on the Oct. 31 deadline — a prospect economists say would disrupt trade and plunge the economy into recession. The amendment to be voted on Saturday would withhold approval of the deal until all the necessary legislation to implement it has passed.
One of the legislators behind the measure, Oliver Letwin, said it would prevent the U.K. from leaving at the end of the month “by mistake if something goes wrong during the passage of the implementing legislation.”
If that amendment passes, Johnson will have to ask the EU for a delay to Britain’s departure date. Last month Parliament passed a law compelling the government to do that if no deal is approved by Saturday.
It would also give another chance to scrutinize — and possibly change— the departure terms while the legislation is passing through Parliament.
Northern Ireland’s DUP not backing Johnson
Johnson’s hopes of getting the deal through Parliament were dealt a blow when his Northern Ireland ally, the Democratic Unionist Party, said it would not back him. The party says Johnson’s Brexit package — which carves out special status for Northern Ireland to keep an open border with EU member Ireland — is bad for the region and its bonds with the rest of the U.K.
“We will not be supporting the government, we will be voting against,” said the party’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds. “Because it isn’t Brexit for the whole of the United Kingdom.”
To make up for the votes of 10 DUP legislators, Johnson has tried to persuade members of the left-of-centre Labour Party to support the deal. Late Friday the government promised to bolster protections for the environment and workers’ rights, to allay Labour fears that the Conservative government plans to slash those protections after Brexit.
Senior figures in the party were unimpressed.
“This empty gesture is not worth the paper it’s written on,” said Labour employment spokeswoman Laura Pidcock.