Britain takes another Brexit baby step

By Ryan Heath

Britain’s never-ending Brexit debate cleared a major psychological hurdle Tuesday. The House of Commons actually voted to support a form of leaving the European Union — the first time in three years of tortured debate.

But as usual, it’s complicated. With the clock ticking toward an Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, we still don’t know how this will end.

Any questions? Thought so.

After weeks of defeats, Prime Minister Boris Johnson scored a win Tuesday evening: Members of Parliament voted their in-principle support for the deal that the EU and Johnson’s government agreed on Thursday.

The deal was supported by a margin of 52 to 48 in Parliament, replicating the result of the 2016 referendum in which Britons voted to leave the EU.

The breakthrough was set in limbo in another vote minutes later, however, when lawmakers insisted Brexit itself be delayed. Their goal: win more time to scrutinize the 110-page draft law that would execute the 585-page Brexit withdrawal agreement, instead of rushing it through this week.

Parliament’s tactical victory here — seeming to force Johnson to break his political promise to have Britain out of the EU by the end of this month — could see them winning a battle but losing the war.

While a defiant Johnson said he still wanted to leave the bloc on Oct. 31, and that the government would “accelerate our preparations for a no-deal outcome,” Parliament has most likely set the United Kingdom on course toward a December national election.

For the election to happen, the EU first needs to grant an extension to the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, something the European Council’s president, Donald Tusk, supports. Labour Party or Scottish National Party lawmakers would also need to join the Conservatives in voting to force the election.

The person most likely to win a national election: Johnson.

Johnson’s Conservative Party has led 55 consecutive national opinion polls. The latest, published Tuesday by YouGov, gives the Conservatives a 15-point lead over opposition Labour.

Equally, an election would afford EU supporters in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties the opportunity to organize a pro-EU electoral front. The parties could work together to block a new Johnson government and — if they win a majority of parliamentary seats — stop Brexit altogether.

The pro-EU minor parties and the on-the-fence Labour Party are unlikely to be able to put their differences aside, however. Labour is also unlikely to ditch Jeremy Corbyn, its wildly unpopular leader.

That means Johnson may have the last laugh. “One way or another, we will leave the EU with this deal to which this House has just given its assent,” he said Tuesday. Given his poll numbers, and given that his Brexit deal is the only option that has won the support of Parliament, he might be right.