Those expecting MPs to finally make a decision on Brexit today may be left disappointed. This afternoon MPs are due to vote on a government motion – on what has been dubbed ‘Super Saturday’ – to signal their approval of the Prime Minister’s deal. The numbers are tight but there is optimism on the government benches that they could do it. This morning Steve Baker told his European Research Group colleagues that they ought to back the deal (for further updates see The Spectator‘s list of MPs backing the deal). However, MPs may not even get to this vote.
John Bercow has this morning accepted Oliver Letwin’s amendment to the government motion. The Letwin amendment seeks to withhold approval for Johnson’s deal until the legislation implementing it becomes law. It effectively changes the premise MPs are voting on, so that the motion no longer meets the demands of the Benn legislation. This means the government would have to request an extension later tonight, even if MPs back the motion. The hope in government had been that by holding a special Saturday sitting they could avoid the need to request an extension as MPs would instead back a deal.
Letwin insists that he is not tying to cause the government trouble – and that he backs the Prime Minister’s deal. Instead, he says this amendment is an insurance policy in case things change or go wrong between now and 31 October. It is likely to have the backing of several of the 21 Conservative Brexit rebels, Labour, the SNP and potentially the DUP. The reason Tory rebels wish to support this amendment while also saying they will vote for Johnson’s deal comes down to a trust issue. These MPs worry that members of the European Research Group will vote to show they back Johnson’s deal today and thereby get around the Benn legislation – but then withdraw their support when the legislation is brought forward to pass the deal into law.
If Letwin passes, a No. 10 source suggests that Downing Street will respond by simply sending their MPs home. Then they will forward the legislation on Monday. Were this to happen, Johnson would have to send a letter today requesting an Article 50 extension. One No. 10 source says that if they are forced into this position, Tusk will be given a copy of Parliament’s letter calling for the extension. The view in No. 10 is there is nothing in the Benn legislation that can stop the government having its own policies and position. The government position on Brexit will remain as the UK will leave on 31 October deal or no deal – that’s the message Johnson will keep pushing to EU leaders. If there is no vote today, No. 10 remain confident that they have a decent chance of passing the new deal this coming week. It follows that even if ‘Super Saturday’ is derailed, it doesn’t necessarily mean the UK will remain in the EU past Halloween.