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Bill to delay Brexit will pass through House of Lords tomorrow. What then?

There are 56 days until the current Brexit deadline.

Boris Johnson in the House of Commons yesterday
Boris Johnson in the House of Commons yesterday
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

YESTERDAY WAS AN extraordinary day in British politics. 

After Boris Johnson’s first – and memorable – appearance for Prime Minister Questions, the opposition and so-called Tory rebels took control of the parliamentary agenda to ensure laws aiming to avoid a no-deal Brexit are passed. 

They managed to get the Benn Bill (so named for Hilary Benn, the man who proposed it) debated, voted on and passed through the House of Commons. 

The bill would force the UK government to ask for a three-month extension from the EU if there is no deal by 19 October, which is two days after the next EU summit. 

That draft piece of legislation then went to the House of Lords where Boris Johnson’s supporters began a filibustering process – putting down numerous amendments – to delay the passing of the bill.

However, at about 1.30am, a commitment was given to return the bill to the House of Commons by 5pm tomorrow. (Richard Newby, the Liberal Democrats leader in the House of Lords said he was “very pleased he would not be needing his duvet”, while Tory Nicholas True mentioned that he had his toothbrush with him after they voted on the business motion to move more swiftly.)

Once the bill comes back to the House of Commons, MPs will vote on it one final time before it goes to the queen for royal assent. 

And that’s where things get interesting again. 

Johnson’s bid to call a 15 October general election failed yesterday because his motion didn’t receive two-thirds support in parliament, but Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he will back such a proposal once the Benn Bill passes into law and a ban on a no-deal Brexit is on the statute books. 

A spokesperson for the prime minister said this morning that Johnson would speak to the public again today and is expected to argue for another election. 

“It is clear the only action is to go back to the people and give them the opportunity to decide what they want: Boris to go to Brussels and get a deal, or leave without one on October 31 or Jeremy Corbyn arriving in Brussels with his surrender bill begging for more delay, more dither and accepting whatever terms Brussels imposes over our nation,” Number 10 told The Guardian

Johnson may table another motion looking for a two-thirds majority after the Benn Bill becomes law but he also has other options. Albeit all with their own dangers. 

The government could try to get around the Fixed-Term Parliament Act (which is the law that requires the two-thirds majority) by introducing some legislation to supersede it. However, if it does this, the opposition could add amendments, frustrate the process, or simply vote it down if they are joined by more Tory rebels. 

Johnson could also call a vote of no confidence in his own government. This would be extreme but potentially useful, and less extreme than the path which would see him resign to bring down the government, forcing the country to the polls.

Even if a general election is called, work on what Brexit will look like will still be required in the coming weeks. However, the Financial Times reports that in a note to EU27 diplomats, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier wrote that the discussions with the UK were in a “state of paralysis”. 

And, in a day of unusual twists, probably the most bizarre was the resurgence of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. 

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock put down an amendment which would see the Withdrawal Agreement Bill debated by the House of Commons. 

The deal, while based on May’s, was altered following cross-party talks but was never published or voted on. Kinnock wanted to change that, and because of a rare event in the Commons, it will happen.

According to Sky News, the MPs who usually count votes in parliament didn’t turn up to count the votes against the amendment. Therefore, it passed by default.  

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister faces another legal challenge to this prorogation of parliament for five weeks. Former Tory party leader John Major has added his name to that action, initially brought by legal campaigner Gina Miller. It will be heard in the High Court later this morning in London. 

Yesterday, a Scottish court ruled there was nothing illegal about the decision to shut parliament from next week until 14 October. 

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