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Explainer: What you should expect as MPs prepare to vote on Boris Johnson's Brexit deal

Boris Johnson faces a significant challenge if he wants to get his deal through the House of Commons.

Speaker John Bercow in the House of Commons. Expect the chamber to be packed with MPs today.
Speaker John Bercow in the House of Commons. Expect the chamber to be packed with MPs today.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

IF IT FEELS like we’ve all been here before, we have. But that doesn’t stop today’s vote in the House of Commons possibly being one of the most important days so far in the Brexit process. 

Today, UK prime minister Boris Johnson will present his freshly negotiated deal with the EU to the House of Commons. The agreement introduces important changes to customs and regulations in Northern Ireland, as well as the role of Stormont in deciding the longevity of those customs arrangements – all in the name of scrubbing away the backstop. 

The DUP has already confirmed that it will vote against the deal, leaving Johnson with a narrow path to winning a vote in the House of Commons and leaving room for plenty of drama. 

So what will actually happen today? 

MPs will vote on whether or not to back the deal negotiated by Johnson, as required under the EU Withdrawal Act. 

Things will kick off from 9.30am today – the first time since 1982 that parliament has sat on a Saturday. 

We’re expecting an opening statement later from Johnson, who will no doubt be stressing his negotiating nous against the EU. After that, parliamentarians will debate the merits or otherwise of the deal – you can count on Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems to largely rubbish it. 

The key moment will be the vote. It’s scheduled for 2.30pm but between debates and amendments it could stretch on well into the evening. 

Why are MPs voting on a Saturday?

Firstly, the vote is hugely significant. This is Boris Johnson’s opportunity to do what Theresa May never could and pass a Brexit deal through the House of Commons.

The problem is, the prime minister is short on time if he wants to meet this deadline of 31 October. He also faces the reality of the Benn Act, passed by parliamentarians against the wishes of the government.

Under the act, Boris Johnson is forced to ask for an extension from the EU if a withdrawal agreement has not been approved by the House of Commons by 19 October. 

What happens if the deal passes?

If Johnson manages to pass the motion seeking this approval today, he will have fulfilled the legal requirements of the Benn legislation. 

This would be the start of the legislative path to Boris Johnson’s vision of Brexit, which will need to be rushed into law before 31 October.

He will have to immediately work to put the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law, which MPs and the House of Lords will also have to first scrutinise and then vote on.  

What happens if the deal doesn’t pass?

If the motion today is unsuccessful and if MPs don’t vote in favour of no-deal, then the Benn Act still stands – meaning Johnson will have to ask the EU for an extension. 

Alternatively, if the deal does pass but the Withdrawal Agreement Bill doesn’t in the coming days, then the UK could end up heading towards a no-deal Brexit. 

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What else could happen?

The entire day remains somewhat unpredictable as the motion put forward by the government could be amended.

One important amendment is the Letwin amendment, put forward by former Tory MP Oliver Letwin, which would withhold approval for Johnson’s deal pending the enactment of legislation implementing the deal. 

There have been suggestions that Labour may try to table an amendment to call for a second referendum (or ‘people’s vote’ in the slang of campaigners), so we could expect some surprises. 

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