The House of Commons last night successfully put the brakes on the prime minister’s attempt to deliver Brexit at breakneck speed. Parliament must now attempt to steer Britain away from the rocks of a Brexit deal which was hastily conceived and which, if enacted, would leave the country to repent at leisure. Boris Johnson will claim, with justification, that the backing by MPs of a second reading for his withdrawal bill, by a majority of 30, was a significant victory. After all, Theresa May never managed as much. But the defeat of the government’s programme motion by 322 votes to 308 means that the prime minister will not be able to force MPs to vote on it by Thursday evening.
Having failed to rush his legislation through parliament, Mr Johnson has announced his intention to pause it, while the EU considers the request that he was forced to send for an extension beyond the 31 October deadline for Brexit. The prime minister will urge Brussels to make that extension short. Whatever its length, MPs who oppose his version of Brexit, which pushes the country towards a deregulated, disunited and poorer future, must now use the time to devise a coherent cross-party plan to achieve a better outcome. The Labour MPs who voted for a second reading of Mr Johnson’s bill will receive fierce criticism. But most did so not because they back Mr Johnson’s deal, but with the intention of amending and softening it, perhaps through a customs union. All options and potential compromises must now be explored by the opposition parties, because Mr Johnson’s version of Brexit cannot be allowed to stand.
The government’s desire to bludgeon the withdrawal bill through the House of Commons in three days flat represented a brazen attempt to exploit a mood of national exhaustion with Brexit. To table a programme motion requiring parliament to give its verdict on Mr Johnson’s deal within 72 hours was an absurdity. As has been pointed out, the Wild Animals in Circuses Act underwent greater parliamentary scrutiny. MPs first saw the legal text of Mr Johnson’s new deal – which proposes a far harder Brexit than Mrs May’s version – on Monday evening. It is 110 pages long and separate explanatory notes run to 125 pages. Scandalously, its publication was accompanied not by an economic impact assessment, but by the blithe assurance of Sajid Javid that the deal is “self-evidently” in Britain’s interest.
It soon turned out that a guarantee of workers’ rights had been removed from the withdrawal bill and placed in the non-binding political declaration. The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, inadvertently misled the House of Lords by saying that no exit forms would be required to send goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. In fact, such forms will be required, much to the fury of the Democratic Unionist party.
It also emerged that Mr Johnson’s deal could lead to a no-deal exit on WTO terms in December 2020. The notion that matters of this gravity and magnitude should have been considered on the hoof, without proper scrutiny, was an affront to parliamentary democracy. But such effrontery has been the modus operandi of this government ever since Mr Johnson became prime minister. Starting with the unlawful move to prorogue parliament for five weeks, the strategy has been to bully MPs, wilfully pitting the executive against the legislature, while appealing to an alleged popular will to “get Brexit done”. The prime minister and his aides have trashed precedent and propriety, daring MPs to cry foul.
This assault on the Commons during the biggest national crisis for decades has its roots in deep political insecurity. Mr Johnson has no majority. The Benn act effectively closed off the option of leaving with no deal at the end of the month. Pursuing a whirlwind Brexit and caricaturing all opposition as a remain plot, the prime minister and his allies hoped that enough MPs would be sufficiently cowed and weary to rush through a deal significantly harder than that proposed by Mrs May. The plan failed. Now parliamentarians opposing Mr Johnson’s vision of a deregulated Britain, cut loose from its major trading partners, have a little more time. They must use it.