Wednesday, 20 Nov 2019

Votes on Brexit Withdrawal Deal Are Another Crunch Moment for Boris Johnson

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain faced another day of reckoning in Parliament on Tuesday, as lawmakers prepared for a preliminary vote on his Brexit agreement with the European Union, as well as whether to put the complicated legislation enacting Britain’s departure on a fast track to approval.

Mr. Johnson appeared within reach of a majority for the deal, which would be his first win in Parliament after a string of losses. The outlook for the separate vote on fast-track approval was far murkier, however. A defeat on that vote would effectively annul the first victory, all but guaranteeing that Britain will not leave the European Union by the Oct. 31 deadline, which Mr. Johnson has vowed to do.

Rather than accept a significant new delay, Mr. Johnson threatened to pull the legislation and demand a general election to settle, once and for all, Britain’s grinding debate on Brexit. The opposition was preparing a series of proposed amendments to the legislation, and a further delay could strengthen their hand in doing so — to such an extent that it could have the effect of unraveling the bill.

On a day that encapsulated both the high drama and recurring gridlock of the Brexit saga, Mr. Johnson implored lawmakers to pass his deal swiftly, calling it the last chance for Parliament to achieve an exit from Europe with a deal in hand.

“We can get Brexit done and move our country on,” he said. “We can turn the page and allow this Parliament and this county to heal and to unite.”

But opposition lawmakers railed against the prime minister for trying to push through in three days a bill that would have generational consequences for Britain. Some noted that the legislation, which runs to 435 pages including supporting documents, would receive less time for scrutiny in the House of Commons than a recent bill prohibiting the use of wild animals in traveling circuses.

Other lawmakers demanded assurances from Mr. Johnson on labor and environmental standards, and raised questions about whether Britain could still face a damaging exit from the European Union after a transitional period ends in December 2020.

The votes were scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. after a day of debate in Parliament. With the government frantically lobbying and the opposition still debating its response, the outcome of both votes was impossible to predict.

The gamesmanship captured the complex crosscurrents of the Brexit debate, more than three years after Britons voted to leave the European Union.

Mr. Johnson seemed to have lined up support for the deal from some members of the opposition Labour Party, which, along with a solid showing by his fellow Conservatives, could put him over the top in the first vote.

Yet he was in danger of losing exiled members of the Conservative Party, who split with him after his threat of a no-deal Brexit, on the timing of the legislation. That, along with a party-line rejection by Labour and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, could leave him a handful of votes short of securing final approval of the bill by Thursday.

Slowing down the timetable for passage of the legislation would enable lawmakers to propose amendments, ranging from a second Brexit referendum to a plan to put the United Kingdom in the European Union’s customs union — a provision that helped torpedo the deal struck by Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.

The odds of passing those measures was unclear. But faced with yet another delay, the government could decide, as Mr. Johnson said on Tuesday, to withdraw the legislation and try to persuade Parliament to throw the matter back to the British public in an election. That would require a two-thirds vote from lawmakers, which is far from assured.

The one-step-forward, two-steps-back nature of Tuesday’s debate was familiar. Mr. Johnson struck his agreement with the European Union last week and scheduled a rare Saturday session of Parliament to win approval for the deal.

After a surge of optimism that Mr. Johnson might eke out a victory, Parliament instead approved a last-minute amendment that delayed a vote on the deal until the legislation enacting it was made public.

Mark Landler is the London bureau chief of The New York Times. In 27 years at The Times, he has been bureau chief in Hong Kong and Frankfurt, White House correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, European economic correspondent, and a business reporter in New York. @MarkLandler

Stephen Castle is London correspondent, writing widely about Britain, including the country’s politics and relationship with Europe. @_StephenCastle Facebook

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