Boris Johnson’s half-triumph means we probably will leave the EU, but not on 31 October

John Rentoul
MPs approve in principle the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill: AFP

For a long time it seemed as if we might never leave the EU. Then, more briefly, it seemed that Boris Johnson, as a new prime minister, was driving towards a no-deal Brexit. When that was closed off, by the Benn Act at the beginning of September, and with Labour reluctant to agree to an election, it seemed as if we might just face many months of deadlock, dither and delay.

Tonight, the House of Commons finally voted for something. The first critical vote on the legislation to implement the Brexit deal was won by a margin of 30 – a stark contrast with Theresa May’s third and final defeat by a margin of 58.

Characteristically for this indecisive parliament, it balanced its vote for something by voting against another thing. Thus the prime minister’s great triumph, which is undeniable, is a qualified one. He now has no chance of taking the country out of the EU next Thursday.

But it turned out that his threat to tear up the bill and demand an election was a hollow one. Instead of pulling the bill, he said the government would “pause this legislation” while it waited for the EU to respond.

That means, I imagine, that he will tell the EU leaders that, if they give him a few more weeks, he will get the legislation through parliament. Given that Nick Brown, the Labour chief whip, offered to discuss a timetable, rumoured to be seven to nine days, it seems likely that something could be agreed that would get the withdrawal agreement bill done within a month.

That depends on whether the votes are there to get the bill through all its stages. Tonight’s first vote suggested that there would be. A margin of 30 allows for several Labour MPs such as Lisa Nandy and Gloria De Piero, who voted for the principle of the bill in the hope of amending it, and who reserved the right to vote against it at a later stage if they didn’t get what they wanted.

So it is worth pausing to recognise the significance of what has just happened. The prime minister was entitled to point out, in his comments after the vote, that “just a few weeks ago, hardly anybody believed we could reopen the withdrawal agreement”. Johnson’s repeated defeats in parliament, and his repeated insistence that he wasn’t going to do things he was eventually forced into doing, distracted attention from his achievements.

First, he negotiated a deal that few thought possible. Theresa May did that too, as everyone has now long forgotten, but she didn’t get close to winning the approval of the House of Commons. Now Johnson has succeeded. He has judged the mood of the House better than most commentators. I certainly thought there was no prospect of winning a majority if the DUP remained opposed.

Perhaps it wasn’t judgement – it may just have been desperation, with nowhere else to turn – but he did it. I don’t know how much he understood about the mood of exhaustion among Labour MPs, but he did grasp the effectiveness of the slogan, “Get Brexit Done.” And he probably understood better than most people that the Tory Eurosceptics would not, after all, take their cue from the DUP – all of them voted for the bill.

As a result, we will probably be out of the EU by Christmas.

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