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U.K. Parliament Poised to Force Delay on Critical Brexit Vote


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U.K. Parliament Poised to Force Delay on Critical Brexit Vote

https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-k-parliament-poised-to-force-delay-on-critical-brexit-vote-11571484241?mod=hp_lead_pos1

LONDON—British lawmakers voted Saturday to postpone a decisive Brexit vote, likely forcing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request a further delay of the U.K.’s departure from the European Union.

Parliament said it needed more time to review a deal Mr. Johnson concluded this week with European leaders that sets out citizens’ rights, a financial settlement to the EU and a special arrangement for Northern Ireland that would require customs checks on goods arriving there from elsewhere in the U.K.

The move was backed by opposition lawmakers, along with some who have recently left or have been expelled from the ruling Conservative Party. By law, failure to ratify a Brexit deal by the end of Saturday requires the government to seek a three-month extension of the current Oct. 31 deadline for Brexit, potentially pushing back a departure from the bloc that has already been postponed twice.

Despite this, Mr. Johnson said he wouldn’t negotiate an extension with the EU, drawing gasps in the House of Commons. His spokesman said the “governments respect the law” but refused to elaborate.

The legislature was set to resume debate on the agreement next week, when the government will give lawmakers a further chance to vote on a deal possibly as early as Tuesday.

If lawmakers approve the deal then, it would also undergo further subsequent scrutiny from lawmakers with the possibility that important amendments could still be passed, including one that would require to deal to be put to a second referendum.  

If Parliament doesn’t ratify the agreement, the Brexit process would again be plunged into uncertainty, with an election or referendum likely needed to resolve the stalemate.

The passage of an amendment that forces the government to give lawmakers more time to scrutinize the deal gave few clues to the eventual chances for the deal when it does come to the House of Commons. A key anti-EU group of Conservative lawmakers said Sunday they would support the agreement, increasing its eventual chances of passage.

The amendment, presented by former Conservative Party lawmaker Oliver Letwin, states that the divorce deal only goes into effect once a swath of related Brexit legislation is passed through the lower house. The resulting extension request represents a setback for Mr. Johnson, who had repeatedly said he wouldn’t make such a demand.  

Before the amendment was passed in an emergency session Saturday, lawmakers argued they wouldn’t have time to examine the small print of the agreement, which runs to more than 500 pages, and some complained there had been no assessment of its economic consequences.

Government officials said that if lawmakers voted to back Mr. Letwin’s plan, Conservatives would be told that any vote taking place on the deal Saturday was meaningless and to abstain. Mr. Johnson said Mr. Letwin’s suggestion was “an impediment to such a verdict tonight.”

Mr. Johnson, whose ability to control Parliament is significantly restricted by the fact his government is in a minority, had urged lawmakers to back the revised withdrawal deal he negotiated with the EU.

“Now is the time for this great House of Commons to come together and bring the country together today,” Mr. Johnson said. He said the deal provides “a real Brexit” that would be “the greatest single restoration of national sovereignty in parliamentary history.”


As U.K. Parliament Debates Boris Johnson’s Brexit Deal, Thousands Protest

Huge crowds march in London calling for a vote on any EU withdrawal deal

A march called ‘Together for the Final Say’ against Brexit draws thousands of people to central London, demanding a new referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.

EPA/Shutterstock

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A march called ‘Together for the Final Say’ against Brexit draws thousands of people to central London, demanding a new referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.

EPA/Shutterstock

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said Mr. Johnson’s administration was seeking to “avoid scrutiny” of the new withdrawal deal, which he said was worse than the package negotiated by Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May. He repeated Labour’s call for a second referendum to put any Brexit deal to voters alongside the choice of staying in the EU.

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The prospect of Parliament enforcing another delay reprises a familiar theme in Britain’s long-running Brexit saga. Government efforts to railroad Parliament into supporting its Brexit plans have repeatedly been rebuffed by a legislature that cherishes its independence.

Following a delay, the immediate focus would turn to whether the EU grants such an extension.

EU diplomats have tentatively scheduled a meeting on Sunday to discuss any extension request, and officials say they are unlikely to deny it. EU governments could offer a shorter or longer extension than three months, which the government would be compelled to accept under the law. In any case, the extension could be shortened if the U.K. Parliament has agreed on the deal.

Deal or No Deal?

Here’s a cheat-sheet of the most likely paths that Brexit could take.

Parliament

votes on deal reached in Brussels

Govt. asks for extension until Jan. 31, 2020

Govt. refuses to ask for extension

Parliament ousts Johnson or he resigns.*

Govt. asks for extension until Jan. 31, 2020

Mr. Johnson’s strategy has been to keep the Oct. 31 deadline alive in order to present lawmakers with the option of backing his deal or exiting without one, an outcome many fear would cause economic havoc.

“That’s the Holy Grail of Brexit: Present Parliament with a binary choice that is inescapable,” said Anand Menon, professor of politics at King’s College London. Saturday’s amendment is aimed at changing that calculus and giving Parliament more time to scrutinize the new deal, he added.

Lawmakers in opposition parties worried that passing a deal counterintuitively opened an avenue for Brexit crashing out of the European Union without a deal on Oct. 31 by mistake. The reasoning: If a deal is approved, a swath of legislation needs to be passed to turn that decision into law. If that legislation wasn’t completed by Oct. 31, Britain would leave the EU without a legally binding divorce deal.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said the EU’s executive arm would await notification of the U.K. government’s next steps.

As lawmakers debated in Parliament, thousands of people gathered nearby to show their support for or opposition to leaving the bloc.

Stuart Holmes, a retired 72-year-old Londoner, paced back and forth through the green near the House of Commons, holding a sign reading, “Leave then negotiate.” He said three years of back and forth since the referendum has been too much.

“If we don’t honor that, where does it end?” he said.

Across the lawn, a group of women sat under a statute of Mahatma Ghandi, with flags for the U.K. and EU draped across their laps. Lindsay Kitson, 66, said she was attending her second Brexit protest in central London. “It’s to tell our grandchildren that we stood up for their future,” she said.

Write to Max Colchester at max.colchester@wsj.com and Jason Douglas at jason.douglas@wsj.com

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