Britain is facing renewed Brexit chaos after parliamentarians opted to delay a vote on whether to approve the withdrawal agreement struck by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the European Union.
During a special sitting of the House of Commons on Saturday, Members of Parliament voted 322 to 306 to withhold approval of the deal until after the Prime Minister has introduced legislation outlining how the agreement would be implemented.
The result of the vote means that according to a law passed by MPs last month, Mr. Johnson is supposed to seek a three-month extension to the Oct. 31 deadline for Britain to leave the EU. However, the Prime Minister indicated after the vote that he will not “negotiate” a delay and it’s not clear if the bloc would grant an extension, although several EU leaders have said they would consider a request. That means Britain could still leave on Halloween without a deal.
Saturday’s vote came as hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets outside Westminster demanding a referendum on the Brexit deal. Most of the marchers want Britain to remain in the EU and many waved EU flags and carried signs denouncing Mr. Johnson and Brexit. “It’s just a colossal act of self harm, the whole process,” said Deborah Sacks, a trade consultant from Norwich.
Mr. Johnson remained defiant after the vote and vowed to press ahead with the deal. He told MPs that the government will introduce legislation implementing the agreement next week. "I am not daunted or dismayed by this particular result," Mr. Johnson said. However, he was vague about how he would comply with the law requiring him to request an extension. “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so,” he said. “I will tell our friends and colleagues in the EU…that further delay would be bad for this country, bad for the European Union and bad for democracy.”
His comments left many MPs wondering if Mr. Johnson would adhere to the law and some speculated the courts might have to intervene. Some MPs also asked House of Commons Speaker John Bercow if he would send a letter to the EU seeking an extension. Mr. Bercow indicated that he would, if asked by a judge or MPs.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn welcomed Saturday’s vote and called on the Prime Minister to obey the law. “Parliament has clearly spoken,” Mr. Corbyn after the vote. “It’s an emphatic decision by this House that has declined to back the Prime Minister’s deal today and clearly voted to stop a no-deal crash out from the European Union.” He added that Mr. Johnson should ”think very carefully about the remarks he just made about refusing, apparently, to apply for the extension.”
Mr. Johnson and EU leaders announced the agreement on Thursday, hailing it as a major breakthrough that finally resolved the thorny issue of how to keep the Irish border open after Brexit. The deal will essentially keep Northern Ireland aligned with EU regulations, but it will also allow Mr. Johnson to argue that the entire United Kingdom is leaving the bloc on Oct. 31. During Saturday’s debate, Mr. Johnson offered an impassioned plea for MPs to back the agreement. “Now is the time for this great House of Commons to come together and bring the country together today, as I believe people at home are hoping and expecting,” he told the chamber.
Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives don’t have a majority in the House of Commons which makes getting approval for the deal tricky. He has also lost the support of his ally, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which has come out against the agreement. Nonetheless, a handful of Labour MPs have expressed a willingness to back the deal, giving Mr. Johnson hope that it could ultimately win parliamentary approval.
Cheers went up outside parliament after the result of the vote was announced. “This deal needs to be scrapped,” said Claire Seward, a teacher in London who carried a sign that read “Brexit is a Lie and a Con.” She believes the only solution is another vote on whether Britain should remain in the EU. “Now that we know the consequences [of Brexit] then we need to reassess what’s happened.” She added that Mr. Johnson is counting on MPs and the public being so fed up with the Brexit debate that they’ll support any deal to end the saga. “If that’s what he wants to achieve and that’s down to us. The remainers have to speak up now.”
Not everyone outside Westminster agreed with the marchers. Janice Hakeney, a homemaker from Hull in northern England, stood at the side of the rally waving a large British flag. She supports Brexit and said another referendum would be anti-democratic since the country voted to leave the EU in 2016. “If you don’t respect that vote, what’s the point of having another one?,” she asked. But she, too, wasn’t sold on Mr. Johnson’s deal. “I think it still keeps us too closely aligned, I’d prefer to just leave and then negotiate a trade agreement.”
Ms. Hakeney did agree with many of the protesters on one point: She’s fed up with Brexit. “I can see a lot of people just want it over with,” she said. “Let’s face it, it’s gone on far too long. We should have had this done and dusted.”