In a historic weekend Parliament session, the first in 37 years, British MPs on Saturday voted to back a motion that delays the vote on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Brexit deal struck with the European Union.
In a setback to Johnson, the 322 versus 306 vote on an important amendment means that the United Kingdom prime minister is bound by the Benn Act passed earlier by the parliamentarians to write to the EU by midnight on Saturday seeking a delay to the October 31 deadline as no new deal has been passed in the Commons by the October 19 cut-off date.
While Johnson and some of his team have previously said that he will abide by the rule of law, it remains unclear what next steps are expected from Downing Street. Johnson declared in Parliament soon after Saturday's vote that he will not be seeking an extension to the end-October Brexit deadline, adding that "I will do all I can to get Brexit done by October 31”.
At the special Parliament session, dubbed 'Super Saturday' because of its significance, UK MPs backed an amendment tabled by Conservative Party MP Oliver Letwin demanding that no new Brexit deal be voted on until the requisite legislation to see it through in time for the October 31 deadline was in place.
The government had already indicated that it would pull its own motion on Johnson's “great new deal” and move it to next week if MPs were to back the delay amendment, introduced as an insurance policy against a default no-deal crash-out by the month-end deadline.
Johnson stressed that he was neither “daunted nor dismayed” by Saturday's vote and that the government would place the required legislation around his new EU withdrawal agreement next week, expected to be tabled on Monday and then voted on Tuesday.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that the 'Super Saturday' vote was a clear message from MPs that they have “declined to back the prime minister's deal”.
Earlier, MPs began debating the new Brexit deal motion, which was to be followed by what had been characterised as a knife-edge vote in the House of Commons on the so-called divorce arrangements between the UK and the 27 remaining members of the economic bloc.
Johnson opened the session with a plea for all sides of the House to come together behind the “great deal”.
“Let us come together as democrats to end this debilitating feud. Let us come together as democrats behind this deal, the one proposition that fulfils the verdict of the majority but which also allows us to bring together the two halves of our hearts, to bring together the two halves of our nation,” said Johnson in his statement to the Commons.
In reference to the 52 per cent versus 48 per cent vote in favour of Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, he said: “Let's speak now both for the 52 and the 48. Let us go for a deal that can heal this country, let's go for a deal that can heal this country and allow us all to express our legitimate desires for the deepest possible friendship and partnership with our neighbours.
“A deal that allows us to create a new shared destiny with them. And a deal that also allows us to express our confidence in our own democratic institutions, to make our own laws, to determine our own future, to believe in ourselves once again as an open, generous global, outward-looking and free-trading United Kingdom.”
The complex arithmetic in the Commons for Johnson's minority government means that he is not assured of the magic 320 MP mark required for his Brexit deal to cross the parliamentary hurdle in a fully sitting house. That number varies depending on the number of MPs voting and also how many choose to abstain.
The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the Conservative Party government, has refused to back the new Brexit withdrawal agreement on the grounds that it goes against its unionist principles because of different customs arrangements to be imposed on the island of Ireland post Brexit.
Anti-Brexit MPs and most of the Opposition Labour Party will also be voting against, leaving a handful of Labour MPs representing Leave supporting constituencies in the UK who are prepared to defy their party's official line and vote with Johnson.
It is this group that could hold the cards for Johnson after the hardline Brexiteer group within his own Tory party, called the European Research Group (ERG), came out in support of the deal just as the Super Saturday session got underway.
The new deal secured at a Brussels summit on Thursday gets rid of the controversial Irish backstop from the repeatedly defeated former prime minister Theresa May's agreement.
The backstop had been presented as a non-negotiable measure designed to prevent a return to physical checks on the Irish border. As a compromise, the new deal effectively draws a new invisible customs border along the Irish Sea where some goods could face tariffs when crossing over to the UK.
The last time the UK Parliament sat for a weekend session was to vote on the Falklands War in 1982 on a motion tabled by the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
To coincide with the Commons debate on Saturday, thousands of people descended upon central London to demand a so-called People's Vote or a new referendum on the Brexit deal struck by Johnson – who took charge at 10 Downing Street in July with a pledge to get Brexit done by the October 31 deadline “no ifs or buts”.