Rebel British lawmakers halt key Brexit vote as Oct. 31 deadline approaches


Brexit may cause a smoldering conflict to flare up especially if there are renewed customs and passport controls along the now-invisible border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland after Britain leaves the European Union. (Oct. 16)

LONDON – In a surprise move, opposition and rebel British lawmakers voted to postpone an important Brexit vote on Saturday, legally forcing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request a delay to Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Johnson immediately said he would not negotiate a delay. 

The outcome injects confusion and uncertainty to the Brexit process and piles pressure on Johnson, who has repeatedly vowed not to delay Britain’s EU exit beyond Oct. 31. Johnson’s government argued any delay increases the likelihood of a “no-deal” Brexit, which experts warn could harm Britain’s economy and lead to border chaos. 

It is an important moment in the prolonged bid to end the Brexit stalemate and one that could have far-reaching consequences for Brexit, for Johnson and for the trajectory of the country more than three years after Britain narrowly voted to leave the bloc.

Johnson claimed he is not compelled by the law to negotiate any further with the EU, a statement that flies in the face of legislation already passed by Parliament. 

Acrimony, divisions, frustration: UK’s 3-year Brexit battle nears end but it’s not over

Lawmakers were supposed to vote Saturday on a new withdrawal deal Johnson negotiated with the EU. The day had been dubbed “Super Saturday.”

It’s not clear exactly what happens next. 

The law says he must ask for a delay by 11 p.m. London time (6 p.m. ET).

Ahead of the vote, Johnson had urged lawmakers to put their differences aside and claimed that his new deal can heal a rift in British politics. But the move by rebel lawmakers upending Johnson’s plan and delaying yet again final parliamentary approval of Brexit. However, the situation remains fluid. 

“Now is the time for this great House of Commons to come together… as I believe people at home are hoping and expecting,” Johnson told lawmakers before the vote.

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In London, thousands of people gathered on the streets to call for a “final say” on Johnson’s deal. “It’s our future, we deserve to have a vote on something that will impact our lives,” said Jen Thomas, 20, a college student, who was protesting for a “people’s” vote on the terms Johnson negotiated with the EU. 

Former Prime Minister Theresa May, who is backing Johnson’s withdrawal deal with the EU, told lawmakers she had a “distinct sense of deja vu” as Parliament debated whether to back her successor’s agreement with the 28-nation bloc. May reluctantly stepped down in July after Parliament repeatedly threw out her Brexit deal.

The fate of the United Kingdom, made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is also to an extent potentially tied to the outcome of the vote. 

Scotland’s top government official Nicola Sturgeon, who strongly opposes Brexit, told the Scottish National Party’s annual conference this week that the UK’s central government in London has “shattered the case for the union.” A 2014 Scottish independence vote failed to pass but polls show support has been rising as a result of Brexit and the Institute of Government, a think tank, published a report that concluded that a “no-deal” Brexit could bring the 300-year-old union to “breaking point.”

Still, the dirty little secret is that Brexit is not complete whatever happens Saturday. In fact, even if Parliament approves the deal and Britain leaves the EU at the end of this month from a legal perspective, the process of Brexit does not end there.

The agreement that Britain and the EU are trying to get done before Oct. 31 only really establishes the broad rules for a transition period as the two parties negotiate a new relationship on trade, consumer protections, security and more.

Some of the complication related to Brexit is about the status of EU-member Ireland’s land border with Northern Ireland, which currently enjoys frictionless trade.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for example, has threatened to block a free trade deal Britain is hoping to sign with the United States if Britain’s EU withdrawal undermines the Good Friday Agreement that ended Northern Ireland’s violent conflict.

Johnson’s deal is about limiting disruptions while those negotiations take place. The transition period would run to the end of December 2020.

Further muddying the waters: Polls of polls show average support for staying in the EU among the British public is now almost exactly the opposite of where it was three years ago: 53% to 47% favor the “Remain” side. “Leave” won the 2016 vote 52% to 48%.  

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