Boris Johnson and MPs dig in for Brexit battle as Commons set for epic week of clashes

JOE MURPHY, NIcholas Cecil
Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street: AP

Boris Johnson today geared up for an epic week of clashes with MPs and Speaker John Bercow in an effort to ram through his Brexit plans.

The Prime Minister defied critics by putting down a motion that opponents claimed was a naked attempt to overturn his defeat on Super Saturday.

He was immediately accused of “picking a fight” with the Speaker, who was widely expected to refuse to allow the vote to be staged at all.

In a separate move, Mr Johnson published a new Withdrawal Agreement Bill and took to Twitter to plead: “It’s time to Get Brexit Done.”

However, Opposition MPs were meeting at Westminster to plot a series of amendments designed to change the Bill, with the risk of delaying it or provoking splits in the fragile Tory alliance on which Mr Johnson is relying to power it through.

John Bercow is widely expected to refuse to allow the vote on the PM's deal to be staged at all (Matt Writtle)

After tabling a motion that “this House approves” the 11th-hour agreement reached with the European Union, No 10 declared this would count as a “meaningful vote” under the 2018 Withdrawal Act. However, senior MPs and experts were united in predicting that the Speaker would refuse to allow a vote to go ahead, saying it broke House of Commons rules that forbid the Government from repeatedly putting down a motion that has already failed.

A senior former minister said: “It is a no-brainer, the Speaker cannot allow this vote. What the Prime Minister is doing is trying to reverse Saturday’s decision so that he can withdraw his letter requesting an Article 50 extension and revive the threat of no-deal.”

A Downing Street source insisted Mr Johnson was sincere, however, saying a vote was needed to clarify matters by letting the Commons express support for the deal. “It is up to the Speaker but it would be really disappointing, and the public would be quite baffled, if he blocked it.”

Boris Johnson is accused of trying to reverse the decision made on Saturday (UK PARLIAMENT/AFP via Getty Images)

The clash came at the start of a momentous week of voting and skirmishing in the Commons, that will decide whether the Prime Minister can achieve his planned exit from the EU by October 31. In key developments:

Some Cabinet ministers are admitting privately that an extension to the transition period, currently due to end in December 2020, will be needed to allow a trade deal to be negotiated with the EU. No 10 disagree, saying the deadline can be met.

The DUP gave some relief to Mr Johnson by rejecting Labour’s appeal for the 10-strong bloc to back an amendment to keep Britain in the EU customs union. DUP MP Jim Shannon said: “We are clear where we stand on the customs union. That’s something we cannot support and will not support.

Calls for a second referendum gathered momentum as Labour said it will whips its MPs to vote for a fresh vote if the Prime Minister’s deal founders. Shadow solicitor general Nick Thomas-Symonds told the BBC: “I’m sure there will be a similar amendment next week and yes, we will be whipping in favour of it.”

If today’s vote is blocked by the Speaker, inset, then tomorrow’s second reading vote on the Withdrawal Bill will be the first real test of whether there are enough backers in the Commons to turn Mr Johnson’s deal into law.

One supporter threatened to vote against the deal on the third reading of the Bill if Mr Johnson continued to “smear” Tory rebels who voted to block him on Saturday.

Former Tory Nick Boles, now an Independent, tweeted: “I have offered to cast my vote for Johnson’s deal on 2nd and 3rd reading. My offer on 2nd reading stands. But if No 10 persists with its McCarthyite tactics of smearing my friends through off the record briefings, I will vote against 3rd reading. Bullying will not work with me.”

Mr Boles claimed: “No 10 does not expect the meaningful vote motion to be allowed. It has tabled it for one reason only: to pick a fight with the Speaker and fuel a further round of stories about the Remainer Parliament blocking Brexit. Childish and predictable in equal measure.”

Privately, some Cabinet ministers say it is now “inevitable” that Mr Johnson will have to delay the end of the transition period from December 2020, which would dismay Eurosceptics keen to break free of EU regulations.

One senior minister said: “This has not been discussed by Cabinet at all but it is pretty inevitable given that the EU has never negotiated a free trade agreement in 15 months in the past. Once the Bill has been passed, this is something that we will have to discuss.”

Mr Johnson was obliged to write to European Council President Donald Tusk requesting a Brexit extension (AFP/Getty Images)

However, No 10 said Mr Johnson was “absolutely” clear that he would end the transition period in 2020. Another Cabinet minister said that a trade agreement could be struck in the deadline because UK and EU rules are currently aligned. “The only question is how much de-alignment will be allowed and what market access the UK has in future,” the minister said. “That can easily be negotiated in time.”

Senior German MP Norbert Röttgen, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said a long delay to Brexit should be decided because of the disarray in British politics. He said that the European Council “should now grant a final long [extension], giving the UK time to sort itself out & to prepare for all possible resolutions including a second referendum”.

After losing Saturday’s vote, Mr Johnson was obliged to write to European Council President Donald Tusk requesting a three-month Brexit extension to the end of January.