Boris Johnson brexit prorogue parliament
(Image: AAP/MICK TSIKAS)

Phwoarr… crikey… crumbs! It’s been all go in the UK over a tumultuous three days, as Boris Johnson racked up two more failures on the Brexit front, with the current crash-out deadline of October 31 less than 10 days away.

On Saturday, the blond bombsite presented his new EU deal to parliament, the one nobody thought he would get. More on how he got it below, but the crucial thing about it is that, through a series of kludgy measures, it gets a departure from the EU on the prescribed date — and then mandates 14 months, to the end of 2020, to arrange a formal UK-EU free trade deal. Even that would only be the bare bones of a full deal, which would take years.

This amounted to a de facto “no deal” crash out, which wasn’t good enough for the remnant Tory Remainers, led by Sir Oliver Letwin, who attached an amendment ensuring that passage of the bill triggered the procedure set out in the Benn Act, forcing the PM write to the EU requesting an extension on the October 31 deadline. That amendment passed 322-306, very largely on non-government v government lines (i.e. everyone v the Tories).

From here, it gets procedurally complicated. The Johnson government didn’t want the amendment, but didn’t want to withdraw or vote against its own bill, so the larger bill — which is simply a parliamentary ratification of the deal, not withdrawal itself — was passed “on the nod” (i.e. without debate or division).

On Sunday, as the 11pm deadline approached, three letters were sent to the EU: the official unsigned extension request, a signed letter from Johnson telling the EU not to believe anything in the first letter, and a third letter from the UK Commissioner officially clarifying that the first letter was the supercessionary government instrument.

The government passed the deal “on the nod” so they could try to re-present it on Monday, with the faint hope that speaker John Bercow would allow it, the deal would be voted up, and Johnson could then claim this was sufficient endorsement to lawfully withdraw the Benn Act letter. However, as they would have expected, Speaker Bercow did not allow a second deal vote, as it would be “repetitive and disorderly” and break a 1604 convention blah blah – something also applied to Theresa May’s withdrawal bill last year.

Soooooooo, Tuesday in the UK will kick off with a new vote on the actual withdrawal bill, which is separate to the deal ratification which passed on Saturday. However, the latter is obviously the core of the former. Obviously.

So how did Boris get a new deal from the EU? Simply by betraying the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — something May wouldn’t do. The sticking point to date has been this: the colonialist border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was largely dissolved by the Good Friday Agreement. If it becomes a UK-EU border, it makes a mockery of a defined EU.

The solution was either to run Ulster on EU rules and run a border between it and Britain (i.e. the rest of the UK), or — what May’s deal proposed — to keep the whole UK in the EU customs union, obeying its rules, until a free trade agreement was struck. This was the so-called “backstop”. The internal border was unacceptable to the DUP, and disliked by Brexiteers; but the interim customs union was an anathema to them.

Boris’s gamble was that the internal border — now known as the “frontstop” — could be introduced (keep or lose the DUP) and get enough resistant Tories and Brexit Labour voters to push it over the line. But he needed to do it while also defeating the new extension amendment.

That he failed to do. But hilariously, this doesn’t mean he won’t get the new withdraw bill through this week. The DUP will still vote against it, but quite likely there will only be a handful of Tory/ex-Tory holdouts. Johnson needs to persuade another 10 or so Labour MPs from Leave constituencies to say yes, and squeak it through.

He has made that difficult for himself by moving the “social guarantee” — that the UK will align its social, environmental and labour laws with the far more leftish EU’s laws — from the obligatory section of the agreement to the non-binding political statement. This is the evisceration the Tories have always wanted. Labour MPs who agree to it will be convinced that their constituents want Brexit at all costs.

Meanwhile, the government is being hauled through the Scottish courts on the grounds that Boris’ second letter counts as contempt of court, given he had promised not to do exactly that.

Still, you’ve got to admire his audacity.

Peter Fray

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