The UK will leave the EU at the end of the month, Cabinet ministers have insisted, despite the government asking Brussels for an extension after a dramatic weekend Commons defeat.
There is now a “fragile coalition” of support among MPs for legislation to make Brexit a reality which could see the laws passed when they come before MPs this week.
The government could today seek to hold a so-called “meaningful vote” on the accord struck with EU leaders last week, but Commons Speaker John Bercow is expected to rule against this. A similar vote was effectively pulled on Saturday after MPs backed an amendment, brought by ex-Conservative grandee Sir Oliver Letwin, to prevent the UK crashing out of Europe without a deal.
This forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to write to Brussels seeking an extension beyond 31 October, which he had previously pledged not to do. But he refused to sign the correspondence, which was accompanied by another signed letter from the Tory leader to European Council president Donald Tusk warning he believed a further extension would be “deeply corrosive”.
‘We have the numbers’
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab yesterday insisted the government has the numbers to get its legislation passed. Sir Oliver, along with former home secretary Amber Rudd, have said they would now back the withdrawal legislation after backing the Letwin amendment.
“We seem to have the numbers in the House of Commons,” Mr Raab told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday. “Why hasn’t Parliament pushed this through? That’s what we’re going to do next week.”
He added: “The advantage of the deal is that it deals with some of the legitimate concerns about a no-deal Brexit. Oliver Letwin has said, and he was one of the authors of the motions on Saturday, he’s said he will now vote for a deal.
“I think a lot of people think, ‘Get this done’. We’ve got a deal. People have written the Prime Minister off. He’s confounded the doubters.” Mr Raab said soundings with other MPs appeared to indicate a narrow majority for the deal.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, insisted that the UK would still be leaving the EU at the end of the month as scheduled.
“We are going to leave by October 31st,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge show yesterday. “We have the means and the ability to do so and people ... yesterday we had some people who voted for delay, voted explicitly to try to frustrate this process and to drag it out.
“I think actually the mood in the country is clear and the Prime Minister’s determination is absolute and I am with him in this. We must leave by October 31st.”
Mr Johnson had been legally required to send the letter, but stressed to Brussels he was sending it only at Parliament’s bidding.
Mr Gove claimed the parliamentary defeat had increased the risk of a no-deal Brexit and he was “triggering” Operation Yellowhammer – the government’s plan to deal with such a scenario.
He said: “The risk of leaving without a deal has actually increased because we cannot guarantee that the European Council will grant an extension. And that is why I will, later today, be chairing a Cabinet committee meeting, extraordinarily on a Sunday, in order to ensure that the next stage of our exit preparations and our preparedness for no-deal is accelerated.
“It means that we are triggering Operation Yellowhammer. It means that we are preparing to ensure that, if no extension is granted, we have done everything possible in order to prepare to leave without a deal.”
The Letwin amendment
The Letwin amendment effectively prevents the UK leaving without a deal. The country could still leave if the deal struck by Mr Johnson last week with EU leaders is endorsed by MPs by the end of the month.
Sir Oliver described his amendment as an insurance policy and insisted he would now be backing the government’s deal.
“I am absolutely behind the government now as long as they continue with this Bill, continue with the deal. I will support it, I will vote for it,” he said.
Ms Rudd, who quit the Tory whip, said she too would back Mr Johnson’s deal.
“I support the Prime Minister’s deal and I have told him I will support it next week,” she said. Ms Rudd insisted there was a “fragile but sincere coalition of people who want to support it. It is a very fragile coalition to support the Prime Minister’s deal.”
Although the government may have the numbers to win a straight vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, it is likely to face amendments on contentious issues such as a customs union, single market access and a second referendum which may thwart the process.
Labour said it would push for a new EU referendum when the government brings its Brexit plans to the Commons.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell accused Mr Johnson of “behaving a bit like a spoilt brat” in the way he had communicated with Brussels over the extension request.
Mr McDonnell said another meaningful vote on the deal today would be “pointless” and a “political stunt” and advocated instead for the “real parliamentary process of scrutinising that legislation”.
He added: “We need the Bill before us, like we would consider any other Bill... we’re saying bring it back next week and let’s consider it. Do you know, he might even meet the deadline of the 31st October if we go through a proper parliamentary process?”
Asked if Labour could back the Brexit deal, Mr McDonnell said: “When the Bill comes forward, what we’ll try to do, as in the normal way, [is] put amendments to that Bill and see whether or not we can ensure that it meets the criteria that we’ve set out.
“The problem that we’ve got is this has become quite a fundamental choice about the future of our economy.
“Do we want to go down the Boris Johnson proposals of diverging from our major trading partner and deregulating our economy, undermining workers’ rights, consumer and environment rights? No, we don’t.
“So what we’ll try and do is, of course, try and amend that legislation and see if we can get agreement in Parliament.”
Asked if the EU was going to be open to an extension, its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said European Council president Donald Tusk would consider the next stage.
He said: “As foreseen, the EU ambassadors meet this morning to take the next steps of the [EU] ratification and tomorrow I will await the European Parliament.”
He added: “It was a very short and normal meeting of EU 27 ambassadors to launch the next steps of the [EU] ratification of the agreement.”
Finnish prime minister Antti Rinne, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said yesterday “it makes sense to allow extra time”.