Boris Johnson struck an emollient tone as he opened Saturday’s historic session of parliament, entreating MPs from all parties to support his Brexit deal and highlighting what he called Britain’s “shared sense of destiny” with Europe.
After months of seeking to cajole parliament by accusing MPs of passing a “surrender bill”, the prime minister stressed Britain’s love of Europe, and claimed supporting his Brexit deal would help to reunite the country.
“If we have been half-hearted Europeans, it follows logically with half our hearts we feel something else. A sense of love and respect for European culture and civilisation of which we are a part. A desire to cooperate with our friends and partners in everything – creatively, artistically, intellectually.
“A sense of shared destiny. And a deep understanding of the eternal need, especially after the horrors of the last century, for Britain to stand as one of the guarantors of peace and democracy in our continent, and it is our continent,” he said.
“And it’s precisely because we are capable of feeling both things at once, sceptical about the modes of EU integration as we are but passionate and enthusiastic about Europe.”
The EU Withdrawal (No 2) Act, often referred to as the Benn act, is a law that was passed by MPs in an attempt to prevent Boris Johnson's government leaving the EU without a deal.
It specifies that by 19 October the government must have either secured a deal that parliament has approved, or secured explicit approval from parliament to leave without a deal.
If neither of those conditions are met – and if Johnson cannot get his deal passed on 'super Saturday' – it requires the prime minister to write to the EU to ask for a further Brexit extension. The form of the letter that the prime minister must send is set out in full in the act.
The act says the extension should last until 31 January 2020, or longer if the EU suggests.
He praised his Brexit agreement, which allows for a significantly looser economic relationship with the EU than the deal negotiated by Theresa May, calling it “a deal that can heal the rift in British politics. Unite the warring instincts in us all.”
He stressed the UK’s right to leave the EU customs union and single market and negotiate new free trade deals with non-EU countries. And he insisted the government had no intention of slashing the environmental standards or social protections that will no longer be guaranteed by law under the new deal.
Johnson also dropped a heavy hint that he concedes he will be forced to request a Brexit delay if MPs defeat the government and pass a backbench amendment aimed at averting no deal.
He said there was “very little appetite” in the EU to delay Brexit “by one single day”, urging MPs to “get Brexit done”.
The unlikely Brexit rebel
Sir Oliver Letwin was born in London in 1956. He studied at Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge, and first became a Conservative MP in 1997.
However, his political career had started long before then, as he had served in Margaret Thatcher's policy unit from 1983 to 1986. The poll tax was an idea Letwin almost single-handedly kept alive in the mid-1980s. In a 1985 memo, he suggested it could be introduced in Scotland first as “a trailblazer for the real thing”.
In 2016 Letwin was forced to apologise after it emerged he had co-written a paper telling Thatcher that providing financial assistance for black unemployed youth after the 1985 riots would only end up in the “disco and drug trade”. The memo, Letwin admitted, was “badly worded and wrong”.
Letwin was forced into hiding in 2001 by a desperate Conservative party, after being outed as the minister who had promised £20bn of tax and spending cuts in an anonymous interview with the Financial Times, far beyond the party’s manifesto at the time.
In many respects, the best periods of Letwin’s career were in the policy engine room, not least when he acted as David Cameron’s fixer, when he was a cabinet office minister in the coalition government. His influence went far beyond the ministerial title.
Then he wrestled with issues such as the future of press regulation in the aftermath of the Leveson inquiry. Letwin’s big idea, to deal with the fact that newspapers refused to accept statutory regulation, was to create an independent regulator backed by royal charter. It was neat, but the mainstream press refused to accept it.
Letwin has emerged as an unlikely Brexit rebel, going from being the ultimate loyalist to serial rebel, beginning in January 2019 when he voted with Labour to give Theresa May a two-week deadline to debate Brexit next steps if her deal was voted down.
“My right honourable friend Sir Nicholas Soames, who is sitting next to me, and I have calculated that we have been in the house, collectively, for 56 years, and we have only ever, either of us, voted once against the Conservative whip,” Letwin said.
A month later his concerns had hardened, as demonstrated in a Commons speech in which he worried that “when the chips are down” the government “would prefer to do what some of my esteemed colleagues would prefer to do: head for the exit door without a deal”. It was, he added, “a terrifying fact” – and one he resolved to prevent.
Ultimately it was to cost him his place in the Conservative party, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed the whip from 21 Tory rebels including Letwin, as his Brexit plans were thwarted yet again.
But in what appeared to be a signal that he was ready to write the letter mandated by the Benn act, he told MPs: “Whatever letters they may seek to force the government to write, it cannot change my judgment that further delay is pointless, expensive and deeply corrosive of public trust.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, rejected Johnson’s defence of his deal, saying it would “fire the starting gun on a race to the bottom”.
“Voting for a deal today won’t end Brexit. It won’t deliver certainty and the people should have the final say. Labour is not prepared to sell out the communities we represent. We are not prepared to sell out their future. And we will not back this sell-out deal,” he said.
After Johnson’s speech, the government’s motion was proposed by the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, responded by forensically highlighting the differences between the new deal and Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, including the absence of legal guarantees on workers’ rights.
Starmer cited Johnson’s own remarks last November, that “regulatory checks and customs controls between Britain and Northern Ireland would be damaging to the fabric of the union. No British Conservative government could or should sign up to such an arrangement.”
Starmer concluded: “The deal before this house is a thoroughly bad deal for jobs, rights and living standards, a bad deal for the future direction of this country – it will put us on the path to an entirely different economy and society: one of deregulation and divergence,” he said.
He added: “Manufacturing having been on its knees, and now having revived at least in part, how anyone could take an axe to it, I will never understand,” he said. “If we pass this deal today it will be a long way back for the communities we represent.”
It appears likely that MPs will pass Oliver Letwin’s amendment, withholding support from the Brexit deal until the relevant legislation – the withdrawal agreement bill – has been passed.
Speaking in support of his amendment, Letwin said its aim was “to keep in place the insurance policy provided by the Benn act, which prevents us from crashing out automatically if there is no deal by 31 October”.
Government sources have suggested that if MPs inflict a defeat on Johnson by supporting the amendment, Conservative whips will effectively boycott the vote on the motion as amended, by sending MPs home.
A No 10 spokesman said Johnson’s focus was on winning the vote against the Letwin amendment – and suggested the rebel MPs’ aim was not to provide for better scrutiny of the agreement, but to frustrate Brexit.
“I do think there is required a frankness from MPs about what this amendment is about,” he said. “We should be clear to MPs thinking of voting for Letwin – it is more pointless delay.”
If the government loses on the Letwin amendment, it is expected to boycott the rest of the day’s proceedings, and press ahead with tabling the withdrawal agreement bill – the legislation needed to enact Brexit.
The vote would still be expected to take place, and the motion would pass, but it would not be the “meaningful vote” the government had hoped for. And it would trigger the requirements of the Benn act, forcing the government to request an extension to article 50.
There could then be a vote on the second reading of the bill on Tuesday – which government sources suggested could effectively become the “meaningful vote” denied Johnson on Saturday.
The spokesman added that the public would expect MPs to work all the hours available – potentially sitting late and through weekends – to “get Brexit done”.
In the run-up to Saturday’s session, the balance of support in parliament for Johnson’s deal appeared too close to call, with most of the Eurosceptics who held out against May’s deal three times saying they would support it, as well as several Labour MPs, including Sarah Champion and Melanie Onn.