Brexit in the balance as British MPs hold knife-edge vote

14:47 | 20/10/2019
British MPs gather Saturday (Oct 19) for a knife-edge vote on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Brexit deal for a decision that could see the UK leave the EU this month or plunge the country into fresh uncertainty.
brexit in the balance as british mps hold knife edge vote
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson making a statement in the House of Commons in London on Oct 19, 2019. (Photo: AFP / PRU)

The House of Commons is holding its first Saturday sitting since the 1982 Falklands War to debate the terms of a divorce agreement Johnson struck with European Union leaders Thursday.

Opposition parties and Johnson's own Northern Irish allies have rejected the text but the prime minister and his team have spent the past 48 hours frantically trying to win the support of wavering MPs.

The vote is widely seen as too close to call but Johnson warned his deal was still the best way out of the tortuous Brexit process that has left Britain in political turmoil since 2016.

Addressing the House, Johnson appealed to lawmakers to back his last-minute Brexit deal.

"If there is one feeling that unites the British public with a growing number of officials in the EU it is a burning desire to get Brexit done," the prime minister said. "Further delay is pointless, expensive and deeply corrosive of public trust."

Johnson is seeking a clear-cut vote that either approves or rejects the divorce treaty.

But his opponents have laid a parliamentary booby trap that could frustrate his plans and force him to send members of parliament home without voting on his deal on Saturday, forcing a further delay in achieving Brexit.

Former Conservative lawmaker Oliver Letwin, expelled from the party by Johnson, has proposed that the decision on whether to back a deal be deferred until all the legislation needed to implement it has been passed through parliament.

Even though Johnson believes this can be achieved by Oct 31, others think it would need a short "technical" delay.

A law passed by Johnson's opponents obliges him to ask the EU for a Brexit delay until Jan 31, 2020 unless he has secured approval for his deal by the end of Saturday.

The so-called "Super Saturday" Brexit showdown tops a frenetic week which saw Johnson confound his opponents by clinching a new Brexit deal in Brussels.

Securing it was a personal victory for Johnson, a "Vote Leave" leader in the referendum campaign who has vowed to deliver Brexit on Oct 31 in all circumstances.

But parliament - like the frustrated public - is still divided over how and even if Britain should end 46 years of integration with its closest neighbours.

The debate starts from 0830GMT and coincides with a mass demonstration to parliament demanding a "People's Vote", with an option to reverse Brexit.

If the deal passes, Johnson is expected to introduce legislation on Monday to ratify the text, which must be pushed through before the end of the month.

Defeat would trigger a law requiring him to ask EU leaders to delay Brexit for what would be the third time. He has said he would "rather be dead in a ditch" than do so.

Any extension would depend on all 27 EU leaders saying yes.


Johnson took office in July after his predecessor Theresa May failed three times to get her own divorce deal through parliament.

He insists that Brexit must happen this month to end the uncertainty that has weighed on the economy and dominated political and public debate.

However, the vote rests on a knife-edge.

Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which supports Johnson's minority government, will vote against it because of its arrangements for the British province.

The main opposition Labour Party, led by veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn, is set against the deal.

"Boris Johnson's sell-out deal risks triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers' rights, and opening up our NHS (National Health Service) to a takeover by US corporations," said Corbyn.

Businesses and markets on both sides of the Channel fear a disorderly exit, and EU leaders have twice delayed Brexit already to avoid such an outcome.


Eurosceptic newspapers urged MPs to back the deal.

The Daily Express front page said: "Respect the will of the people and let's move on."

The Daily Telegraph said it was Britain's best chance for an orderly departure.

"People are sick and tired of the delay and fed up with procedural trickery," it said of the proposed amendment.

An online Survation poll of 1,025 adults on Thursday and Friday for the Daily Mail found that 50 per cent said MPs should vote for the deal, while 38 per cent said not.

Meanwhile, The Times said: "On behalf of a bored and disillusioned country, increasingly angry with Westminster, MPs should back the deal."

EU leaders in Brussels this week urged lawmakers to back the deal, to allow both sides to move on to discussing their future relationship.

The deal covers Britain's financial settlement, protects the rights of EU citizens and sets out a post-Brexit transition period potentially until 2022 to allow both sides to agree new trade terms.


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