It’s only Tuesday, but already it feels like a long week for Downing Street. Yesterday John Bercow, the Speaker, blocked Boris Johnson’s last attempt at a straight up-or-down vote on his Brexit deal.
– New course record –
Yet holding a fourth meaningful vote at this point was only ever a political act, intended to build momentum towards the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). That 110-page document, and 124 pages of explanatory notes, has now been published with an eye to rushing it through Parliament in just a week.
That takes Johnson a step further than his predecessor ever managed. Theresa May never published her WAB, for fear that it would incite mass rebellion.
Indeed, with Johnson only having succeeded in getting changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, the majority of the WAB is likely to be identical to what could have been published in March. That includes the continued involvement of the European Court of Justice in British law until the end of the transition period.
Yet the simple fact that it is Johnson in No10 and not May has changed the balance of the Commons. As evidence, Steve Baker and Mark Francois, the chairman and deputy chairman of the ERG, have written in The Telegraph of their approval for this “imperfect” deal.
– In Boris they trust –
The key is trust. Eurosceptic MPs believe the Prime Minister when he promises that the UK will not tie itself closely to the EU in the future relationship negotiations.
Yet how far that newfound trust is felt by other factions within Parliament will be key to whether the PM gets through the next week unscathed.
The WAB’s first hurdle shouldn’t be a problem. It is expected to pass its second reading with the support of MPs who do not actually back it and, reportedly, with Labour abstaining.
After that, however, it faces two significant hurdles. The programme bill and amendment warfare.
– Parliamentary obstacle course –
On the former, the Government must create time for evening and weekend sittings to get the bill through Parliament – including a potentially hostile Lords – by the end of next week. Johnson appears to have the numbers for that vote, but it’s by no means a certainty. There’s been plenty of backlash at the idea of allowing MPs just three days of scrutiny.
The amendments, too, will be difficult and it again comes down to trust. One demanding a confirmatory second referendum appears to have run out of steam, but two others could cause Johnson problems. The first, as mentioned yesterday, would oblige the Government to negotiate a customs union with the EU during the future relationship talks.
The second would give Parliament a say over whether to trigger the one-to-two-year extension of the transition period at the end of 2020. (The Government is only offering a sign-off on it.)
– You can’t bind a future parliament –
Downing Street continues to insist that it will withdraw the WAB and attempt to trigger an election if MPs succeed in amending it. But Johnson has also made a counter offer. He has included an idea, first suggested by Labour MPs in Leave seats, to give Parliament the final approval of the Government’s negotiating mandate for the future relationship.
Much of this appears to be political game playing. If the Tories expect to have a decent majority next year, then they can either undo most of these promises or assume that Parliament won’t use them to thwart a hard Brexit.
There is a sense, in some quarters, that Johnson is still looking for an excuse to trigger an election that can be fought on the need to end Parliament’s supposed chicanery.
Yet the next stage of Brexit, the negotiation of the future relationship, is likely to be more, not less, contentious. The Government can’t be certain of a big majority or that it won’t face the same rebellion and attritional losses that hit both May and John Major.
– Victory in defeat –
Will the rebels actually succeed in their amendments? The balance of probability is against them as of this morning. As Stephen Bush at the New Statesman writes, those backing a customs union for genuine reasons are starting to believe that they are better of waiting until the next phase of the Brexit talks to fight for it, because the current amendment is just a wrecking effort.
An election on the basis of Brexit, yes or no, would be more likely to give Johnson a mandate to go hard. He might just prefer that.
By Daniel Capurro, Front Bench Editor