Will Boris Johnson’s Fast-Tracked Brexit Bill Blow Up In His Face?

'Moderate' Tory MPs could now decide whether Halloween will be 'do or die' but the SNP may determine when the election comes.

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The fast show

The squeeze is on. With just 10 days to go to October 31, the Brexit countdown clock is getting louder and the government is piling the pressure on MPs to meet Boris Johnson’s ‘do or die’ deadline.

The long-awaited Withdrawal Agreement Bill was published on Monday night, accompanied by Jacob Rees-Mogg ’s timetable to fast-track it through parliament at a breathtaking pace. The ‘Boris Brexit Bill’ will be rammed through in just three days flat to clear its Commons stages by Thursday night.

‌Given there are 110 pages for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and 125 pages of Explanatory Notes, many MPs are sure to cry foul at the lack of time to scrutinise the thing. One insider worked out it could take eight hours alone to read both documents.

‌For veterans like Ken Clarke, there’s a bitter irony in the fact that many Eurosceptics demanded (and got) more than 20 sitting days to debate the infamous Maastricht Bill, including many all-night sessions. Now, with Brexit so close, many Leave MPs just want the thing done with, despite all their previous protestations about needing time for detailed deliberation.

‌Rees-Mogg himself was unapologetic, referring to the fact that parliament rushed through an act in one day to allow Edward VIII’s abdication from the throne in 1936. “A King Emperor left in 24 hours and we are removing an imperial yoke within a week,” he joked.

‌The Commons Leader was also quick to compare the accelerated timetable to the super fast passage of the Benn Act that allows Brexit to be delayed beyond October 31. But aside from the fact that this bill is a whale to Benn’s goldfish, the real question is just how many MPs who were tempted to back the bill will now think it just fails to allow proper scrutiny.

‌Rees-Mogg said that “people who don’t vote for the programme motion will be voting not to have Brexit on 31st of October”. He’s right, but that’s a threat that may not worry people like Philip Hammond and David Gauke. Stripped of the whip, they have no loyalty to the PM, only to whether they think the bill is in a fit shape.

‌What may further embolden former Treasury ministers like Hammond and Gauke is the total absence of any serious economic impact assessment. When Sajid Javid wrote today to Treasury Select Committee chair Catherine McKinnell, he said an assessment would be given at an ‘appropriate’ point during the next year. The issue is how many ‘moderate’ Tory MPs will now back McKinnell’s conclusion that this is like asking MPs to vote for a ‘blind Brexit’.

‌One straw in the wind was criticism from Gavin Barwell, Theresa May ’s former chief of staff. He said that while MPs have had more than enough time to talk about various models of Brexit, “they haven’t seen the Bill and it is long and complex”. And he should know, because much of the bill was drafted under May.

‌The loss of the fast-tracked programme motion would be embarrassing for the PM, as it would mean breaching his Halloween deadline. But it would not be disastrous if it meant a short delay, approved by the EU.

‌More damaging would be a defeat on a customs union amendment once the bill gets underway. One close colleague of Johnson’s says: “Don’t forget he quit the cabinet because he opposed the customs union.” The refusal of the One Nation group of Tory MPs to back the idea, as well as the DUP’s own opposition, means it may be doomed anyway.

‌Government whips also think they can easily defeat a second referendum amendment. But there is a real sense of nervousness about a further amendment that is being drafted by rebel MPs - to extend the Brexit ‘transition’ period until a trade deal was agreed with the EU.

‌This is aimed at closing what Keir Starmer calls the ‘no-deal trapdoor’ in the Bill, amid fears that Brexiteer MPs like John Baron will push for no-deal by the end of the transition in December 2020. This House of Commons famously can’t agree what it wants on Brexit but it knows what it doesn’t want: no deal. And that may well apply to December 2020 as much as October 2019.

‌If such an amendment were to pass, it could cause fury among Eurosceptics and the PM may be tempted to pull the entire bill. We would then be into December general election territory once more. Although some in government would actually prefer a spring election if a deal is passed (some even want to wait until May to boost turnout in local and mayoral elections), if the legislation is pulled, that December 12 election looms large.

‌Why? Because the government has one final trick up its sleeve. Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (another brainchild of Sir Oliver Letwin, his Tory critics mutter), a two thirds majority is needed to trigger an election, giving Labour a veto. But Johnson is looking at a one-line bill to allow a simple majority instead. And with the SNP champing at the bit for an election, he could get the votes to trigger the election he needs to sort Brexit once and for all. If the SNP want a winter polling day, they will get one.

Quote Of The Day

“He is a 12-year-old boy, he found nothing more exciting than being escorted home by the police – I’m not sure he should have found it so exciting but he did.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg on his son’s view of the police guard he received on Saturday.

Monday Cheat Sheet

The government finally published its Withdrawal Agreement Bill, and a timetable to get it passed by the Commons in three days.

‌Firms in Northern Ireland will be forced to fill out export declaration forms when shipping goods to Britain, Brexit secretary Steve Barclay admitted. Michael Gove later confirmed the new red tape measures but added “will make sure that they are seamless”.

‌Chancellor Sajid Javid wrote to the Treasury select committee to reject its plea for an economic impact assessment for the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

Michel Barnier is not going anywhere. He will lead a new task force in the next European Commission, effectively continuing his work as EU Brexit negotiator in the talks on a UK trade deal.

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