Will the UK leave the EU on the 31 October? Barring the highly unlikely event of the EU refusing an extension, the answer to that question is no. This evening, MPs voted against the government’s programme motion to push the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the Commons at breakneck speed – at 308 to 322. This means it is hard to see how the bill can pass the Commons without an extension being agreed with the EU.
On hearing the result, Boris Johnson told MPs that he would now put the bill on ‘pause’ and speak to EU leaders about the extension. He was at pains to say that this was parliament’s extension request – rather than something he wanted:
‘The first consequence, Mr Speaker, is that the government must take the only responsible course and accelerate our preparations for a no deal outcome.
But secondly, I will speak to EU member states about their intentions until they have reached a decision – until we reach a decision I will say – we will pause this legislation.
And let me be clear: our policy remains that we should not delay, that we should leave the EU on October 31st.
That is what I will say to the EU and I will report back to the House.
And one way or another we will leave the EU with this deal to which this House has just given its assent.’
It wasn’t all bad news for Johnson this evening. The government did manage a rare win – with the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill passing the Commons by 329 to 299. This means the bill can now progress to the next stages – just not in time for 31 October. In the second reading vote, 19 Labour MPs voted within the government. Government figures expect that number to potentially fall – with some MPs’ support conditional on various amendments being added at a later date.
So where does this leave the government? With Johnson telling MPs the bill is now ‘on pause’, there’s a question mark over whether Johnson now tries to pass the deal and goes past the 31 October deadline – or Johnson attempts to go for an early election.
Speaking in the Commons, Johnson suggested that no deal was still a real prospect. However, few in Cabinet believe that is likely. Instead, an extension looks the most likely option. Depending on the length of that extension, Johnson could now push for a general election (both Labour and the SNP have suggested they would back an election if an extension is secured) or push on for a slightly delayed Brexit deal.