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What was tonight's crucial Brexit vote all about, and what happens now?

Let’s untangle the confusing jumble of Brexit legislation, amendments and Commons votes.

Image: Jonathan Brady

TONIGHT’S HOUSE OF Commons vote is being viewed as crucial and historic in the Brexit debate – but what was it on, exactly?

All the trouble started on Super Saturday when a debate and vote was scheduled to take place in the wake of Boris Johnson securing a Brexit divorce deal with the EU against all odds last Thursday.

Johnson was aiming to get it passed in the House of Commons before the Benn Act, requiring him to seek an extension from the EU by Saturday evening, kicked in. 

In September, MPs voted to back the Act compelling the Prime Minister to seek the extension if a deal hadn’t been signed off by the Commons within a day of the October EU summit ending. 

But before he got to ask MPs to vote for his Brexit deal, former Tory (now independent) Oliver Letwin tabled an amendment that won the support of the majority of his MPs.

This amendment made it law that the legislation underpinning the Brexit divorce deal would need to be passed before a straight vote (also known as the Meaningful Vote) could be held on his deal. 

The Letwin amendment was voted through, and the government then announced it would try again to table its Meaningful Vote on Monday evening. 

Yesterday, however, Speaker John Bercow derailed this process when he ruled that as the matter had already been put to parliament, it couldn’t be voted on again. 

Johnson’s government then proposed a three-day schedule for all the legislation underpinning the revised version of the Withdrawal Agreement to be debated, amended, and voted on.

The 585-page draft EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement was translated into 110 pages of British legislation, which would need to be passed in Parliament by the end of this week (remember, the Brexit deadline is next Thursday, 31 October).

Critics had argued that this wouldn’t be enough time for the legislation to be scrutinised properly – Johnson’s supporters said that opposition to his schedule was just an attempt ensure the EU granted an extension and to delay Brexit further.

What happened tonight?

There were two votes held tonight

One was on the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – essentially a vote to allow the legislation to progress – which passed by 329 to 299 votes.

This has been heralded as the first majority in favour of any Brexit deal since the process began – but it’s worth noting that this is just the second reading. MPs who are wavering on what side to take could have voted for it tonight, with the intention of voting against it on the third reading – which had initially been scheduled for Thursday. 

The second vote is the big one that Johnson lost. This was on his accelerated schedule for the scrutiny of his Brexit extension: he lost this by 322 votes to 308

What happens now?

After the defeat, Boris Johnson said that he was “pausing” the WAB legislation, and that it was up to the EU what happened next.

House Speaker John Bercow has said that the technical term used for the current status of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is that it is in “limbo”.

Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg put it more colourfully: 

The bill is not in the heaven of having been passed, nor the hell of having failed, but in purgatory suffering the pains of those in purgatory.

Clarifying what the order of business for the House of Commons was now that MPs had voted down the government’s plans, Rees-Mogg said that the debate on the Queen’s Speech would continue tomorrow and conclude on Thursday, and that the House would not sit on Friday.

The Queen’s Speech lays out the government’s legislative agenda for the parliamentary session, covering areas such as justice, the environment, and taxation.

If the EU grants an extension, which it is likely to do, it will be until the 31 January 2020, as set out in the letter sent by Boris Johnson under the Benn legislation. It had been suggested that the extension could only last a couple of weeks, to allow for parliamentary scrutiny. This longer extension gives room for a long-awaited UK election. 

Labour, which has previously been reticent about agreeing to a general election too close to a no-deal Brexit threat, has said that it would back an election if the extension was long enough to allow for one.

Johnson doesn’t have unilateral power to call an election, as he needs the support of two-thirds of the House of Commons, or at least 434 MPs. This is a requirement set out under the UK’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.

There would also need to be 25 working days between the dissolution of parliament following such a vote, and polling day, which is usually held on a Thursday. Since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson has already tried to call a general election, and although he won a majority, he failed to get the required two-thirds support. 

At Cabinet earlier today, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that there would not be a third round of EU-UK Brexit negotiations, unless there was a softening of the Brexit stance towards a closer relationship (membership of the Single Market or Customs Union, for example).

In statements given to the European Parliament earlier today, EU stalwarts Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker hinted strongly that any request for an extension would be granted, with the former saying “a no-deal Brexit will never be our decision”.

An hour after the vote ended, Tusk indicated that he would indeed recommend to the EU’s 27 heads of state that they should accept the UK’s earlier request for an extension (that’s the one sent under the Benn Act).

This would mean an extension up until the 31 January 2020

The Irish government has said previously that it would support any request for an extension from the UK, particularly to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

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