PM in final rallying call as Brexit rebels plot last-minute hurdle
Boris Johnson has issued a final rallying call to MPs to back his EU Withdrawal Agreement as rebels plot an amendment that could push Brexit back until the new year to avoid an accidental no-deal.
Number 10 is working desperately to secure a Commons majority for the deal struck by Mr Johnson in Brussels, but a lack of widespread support from opposition parties means the vote is on a knife edge.
Here is what is expected to happen today:
- The European Research Group of Brexiteer Conservative MPs will meet at 8.30am in the Commons
- The House of Commons will begin sitting at 9.30am, and the Lords at 11am
- Boris Johnson will give a statement to MPs from about 9.40am, and this may be followed by questions
- A government minister will move the motion allowing MPs to vote on the deal, Speaker John Bercow will announce amendments, and a debate will begin
- Amendments will be voted on first, followed by the motion itself – and this could be during the afternooon
The government has been holding discussions with some Labour MPs in an attempt to get the 320 votes needed, and the prime minister has urged colleagues to back the deal and free the country "from the never-ending Brexit saga".
Writing in The Sun, Mr Johnson insisted his agreement was a "great deal for every part of our country" and an opportunity to bring to an end a "difficult, divisive, painful chapter in our history".
Several members of the cabinet have joined the PM on a newspaper charm offensive, with Michael Gove in The Times warning that "divisions will only grow deeper in our society" if the deal fails to go through.
Home Secretary Priti Patel and Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom, who both voted against Brexit agreements put forward by Theresa May, have sung the praises of the new deal in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Express.
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But even if the agreement does get through during a rare Saturday Commons session, it may come with an amendment that could see MPs withhold their support until the Brexit legislation has been safely approved.
If selected by Speaker John Bercow, the amendment proposed by Sir Oliver Letwin would trigger the Benn Act introduced by MPs opposed to a no-deal – and it would compel the PM to request a delay until the end of January.
Sky News' political correspondent Rob Powell reports that the concern among those in favour of the amendment is that hard Brexiteers could purposefully withdraw support later in the month to trigger a no-deal.
Sir Oliver, a former Tory cabinet minister who now sits as an independent, told Sky News that he wanted the deal to succeed, but that an "insurance policy" was needed to keep the UK from "crashing out on 31 October by mistake".
He added: "The amendment is to make sure that we have an insurance policy that means if for some reason something goes wrong when the legislation goes through, then we would have already secured the extension which the Benn Act provides, so we won't crash out of the EU by mistake."
Tory Brexiteer MPs who have previously refused to back a withdrawal agreement – including Mark Francois – were spotted entering Downing Street for talks earlier on Friday.
Sky's political editor Beth Rigby reports that Mr Francois – a member of the European Research Group that has previously advocated leaving the EU without an agreement – is going to back the deal today.
But Mr Johnson needs a decent number of opposition MPs to back it as well – especially as he does not having the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party.
There are only 287 Conservative MPs, leaving the PM in need of backing from some of the following:
- 20 former Tory rebels who lost the whip – effectively expelled from the party – but have not yet defected
- 19 sitting Labour MPs who have previously indicated they might back the right sort of Brexit deal
- And a handful of former Labour MPs sitting as independents
Sky News analysis suggests the PM is on course for about 316 votes – four short of what he needs.