Saturday–that’s yesterday as I write this–was the big day: A special session of parliament was set up to vote of the Brexit deal Boris Johnson had negotiated with the European Union. It was the moment when we were finally going know what was happening.
Or not, as it turned out, because a majority of the MPs didn’t trust Johnson enough give him a simple vote.
Let me explain, because nothing in the Brexit saga is simple. Ever. In fact, let’s (almost) open with a quote from an unnamed cabinet minister, who said, “I really have no idea what is going on.”
Yeah, I know just how you feel. So if halfway through the update, you feel a heavy fog taking over your brain, obscuring clear thought, you’re right up there with the experts. And no, I’m not claiming to be one of the experts,it’s just that I can get befuddled with the best of them.
So, what happened on Saturday? The government proposed its version of Brexit. I won’t go into the details because I did that in the last update and I don’t want to send you all screaming into the sunset. Let’s sum it up by saying that if Theresa May had proposed it, the people who now support it–or negotiated it for that matter–would have denounced it as one step short of treason.
Okay, maybe two steps short. But that kind of hysterical language has been flying around the halls of parliament and the pages of the press.
And you know what? I keep getting search engine questions about British understatement. But it’s not all understatement here. It’s “surrender bill” and “big girl’s blouse” and I’ve already cleared my mind of the rest of the abuse.
Sorry. Where were we? A version of Brexit was put before Parliament and everyone was counting noses. Each member of parliament comes equipped with one nose except for the MPs representing Sinn Fein, who refuse to take their seats because they refuse to recognize Britain’s right to govern any part of Ireland. They may have noses–that has yet to be established–but they weren’t being counted.
According to all counts, the vote was going to be very, very close.
But before we could find out what the vote would’ve been, a cross-party amendment was tabled, called the Letwin amendment, by people who don’t trust Johnson to walk from one side of the street to the other without pulling some kind of fast one. You know, disappearing up the side of a building; stealing the bananas at the top of some old lady’s grocery bag; that kind of thing. These are, basically, the same MPs who’d passed a law–the Benn act–not long before that was meant to block the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
The problem was, they saw a possible loophole in the Benn act, and presumably Johnson did too, because he kept trumpeting to the press that he wasn’t going to ask for the extension the Benn act demanded. A smarter wheeler-dealer might’ve kept that to himself and pulled his stunt at the last minute, but Johnson loves a headline. “See those bananas?” he kept saying. “I’m gonna have those. Watch me.”
The loophole was this: If Johnson’s deal was accepted on Saturday, the requirements of the Benn act would be satisfied and Johnson wouldn’t have to ask for an extension. But if the enabling legislation didn’t get passed in time, Britain could still crash out of the EU.
“Look, Ma, no hands! We’re gonna crash out!”
So the Letwin amendment withholds final approval until all the legislation implementing the deal is in place.
We’ll take a shortcut or two here, skipping a bit of the drama, and just say that the amendment passed.
What happened next? Johnson said he wouldn’t negotiate a delay with the EU. What did he do instead? He sent an unsigned letter to the EU requesting a delay, along with a signed one saying why he thought they should ignore the first one. That may still land him in court, because the law requires him to ask for a delay.
The government–or at least one of its ministers–is still insisting that Britain will leave the EU by October 31.
The government says it will hold a vote on the Brexit deal on Monday, but it’s not at all clear whether the speaker of the house will allow it. He has, in the past, ruled that the government can’t keep bringing defeated proposals back.
The government could also try to tackle the enabling legislation.
What’s clear at this point is that an amendment for a second referendum will be proposed. If it passed, this would give the country the choice of staying in the EU or accepting the form of Brexit the government’s negotiated. It looks like Labour–which has been dancing around a commitment to the second referendum–will propose it. I don’t think anyone’s had time to count noses or to make sure no one’s coming in with a few prosthetic noses.
By now, everyone’s exhausted with the endless Brexit maneuvering, but Chris Grey, in The Brexit Blog, makes a good point about why it’s happening: “At the core of the entire row over Brexit, “ he says, is the problem that “as soon as [Brexit] gets defined in any particular way, some who support it in principle do not support it in that version.” The Democratic Unionist Party wants one version, the handful of Labour Brexiteers want something very different, and (he argues) the Brexit Party is so invested in the politics of protest that “nothing can ever live up to their fantasy.”
And that covers only a few of the grouplets that have to be corralled before the government can assemble a majority.
In deference to all the good people who are sensitive about old ladies and bananas: I’m 72. I’ve earned the right to make fun of old ladies. And if Boris Johnson thinks he can get his mitts on mine, I invite him to try.