Boris Johnson implores MPs to 'get Brexit done' in crucial Saturday vote

PM appears to accept he would have to request delay if MPs pass amendment to avoid no deal

Boris Johnson struck an emollient tone as he opened Saturday’s historic session of parliament, entreating MPs from all parties to support his Brexit deal and highlighting what he called Britain’s “shared sense of destiny” with Europe.

After months of seeking to cajole parliament by accusing MPs of passing a “surrender bill”, the prime minister stressed Britain’s love of Europe, and claimed supporting his Brexit deal would help to reunite the country.

“If we have been half-hearted Europeans, it follows logically with half our hearts we feel something else. A sense of love and respect for European culture and civilisation of which we are a part. A desire to cooperate with our friends and partners in everything – creatively, artistically, intellectually.

“A sense of shared destiny. And a deep understanding of the eternal need, especially after the horrors of the last century, for Britain to stand as one of the guarantors of peace and democracy in our continent, and it is our continent,” he said.

“And it’s precisely because we are capable of feeling both things at once, sceptical about the modes of EU integration as we are but passionate and enthusiastic about Europe.”

He praised his Brexit agreement, which allows for a significantly looser economic relationship with the EU than the deal negotiated by Theresa May, calling it “a deal that can heal the rift in British politics. Unite the warring instincts in us all.”

He stressed the UK’s right to leave the EU customs union and single market and negotiate new free trade deals with non-EU countries. And he insisted the government had no intention of slashing the environmental standards or social protections that will no longer be guaranteed by law under the new deal.

Johnson also dropped a heavy hint that he concedes he will be forced to request a Brexit delay if MPs defeat the government and pass a backbench amendment aimed at averting no deal.

He said there was “very little appetite” in the EU to delay Brexit “by one single day”, urging MPs to “get Brexit done”.

But in what appeared to be a signal that he was ready to write the letter mandated by the Benn act, he told MPs: “Whatever letters they may seek to force the government to write, it cannot change my judgment that further delay is pointless, expensive and deeply corrosive of public trust.”

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, rejected Johnson’s defence of his deal, saying it would “fire the starting gun on a race to the bottom”.

“Voting for a deal today won’t end Brexit. It won’t deliver certainty and the people should have the final say. Labour is not prepared to sell out the communities we represent. We are not prepared to sell out their future. And we will not back this sell-out deal,” he said.

After Johnson’s speech, the government’s motion was proposed by the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay.

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, responded by forensically highlighting the differences between the new deal and Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, including the absence of legal guarantees on workers’ rights.

Starmer cited Johnson’s own remarks last November, that “regulatory checks and customs controls between Britain and Northern Ireland would be damaging to the fabric of the union. No British Conservative government could or should sign up to such an arrangement.”

Starmer concluded: “The deal before this house is a thoroughly bad deal for jobs, rights and living standards, a bad deal for the future direction of this country – it will put us on the path to an entirely different economy and society: one of deregulation and divergence,” he said.

He added: “Manufacturing having been on its knees, and now having revived at least in part, how anyone could take an axe to it, I will never understand,” he said. “If we pass this deal today it will be a long way back for the communities we represent.”

It appears likely that MPs will pass Oliver Letwin’s amendment, withholding support from the Brexit deal until the relevant legislation – the withdrawal agreement bill – has been passed.

Speaking in support of his amendment, Letwin said its aim was “to keep in place the insurance policy provided by the Benn act, which prevents us from crashing out automatically if there is no deal by 31 October”.

Government sources have suggested that if MPs inflict a defeat on Johnson by supporting the amendment, Conservative whips will effectively boycott the vote on the motion as amended, by sending MPs home.

A No 10 spokesman said Johnson’s focus was on winning the vote against the Letwin amendment – and suggested the rebel MPs’ aim was not to provide for better scrutiny of the agreement, but to frustrate Brexit.

“I do think there is required a frankness from MPs about what this amendment is about,” he said. “We should be clear to MPs thinking of voting for Letwin – it is more pointless delay.”

If the government loses on the Letwin amendment, it is expected to boycott the rest of the day’s proceedings, and press ahead with tabling the withdrawal agreement bill – the legislation needed to enact Brexit.

The vote would still be expected to take place, and the motion would pass, but it would not be the “meaningful vote” the government had hoped for. And it would trigger the requirements of the Benn act, forcing the government to request an extension to article 50.

There could then be a vote on the second reading of the bill on Tuesday – which government sources suggested could effectively become the “meaningful vote” denied Johnson on Saturday.

The spokesman added that the public would expect MPs to work all the hours available – potentially sitting late and through weekends – to “get Brexit done”.

In the run-up to Saturday’s session, the balance of support in parliament for Johnson’s deal appeared too close to call, with most of the Eurosceptics who held out against May’s deal three times saying they would support it, as well as several Labour MPs, including Sarah Champion and Melanie Onn.

Contributors

Heather Stewartand Kate Proctor

The GuardianTramp

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