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LONDON – In a surprise move, opposition and rebel British lawmakers voted Saturday to postpone an important Brexit vote, legally forcing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request a delay to Britain's departure from the European Union.
A reluctant Johnson sent a letter requesting the delay late Saturday night, but he also made clear that he personally opposed delaying the U.K.’s exit, scheduled for Oct. 31.
The letter was not signed. It was accompanied by a second letter, signed by Johnson, arguing that delay would "damage the interests of the U.K. and our EU partners."
Earlier Saturday, Johnson said he would not negotiate a delay.
The outcome, and Johnson's response, injects new confusion and uncertainty into the Brexit process and piles pressure on Britain's leader just three months into his tenure. Johnson has repeatedly vowed not to delay Britain's EU exit beyond Oct. 31.
His government argued that any delay increases the likelihood of a "no deal" Brexit, which experts warn could harm Britain’s economy and lead to border chaos.
"I will not negotiate a delay, nor does the law force me to," Johnson said, reacting to the 322-306 vote, which he lost by 16 votes. He said he was "undaunted" by the defeat and would try to introduce legislation next week to implement his EU exit deal.
That could happen as early as Monday.
It was an important moment in the prolonged bid to end the Brexit stalemate and one that could have far-reaching consequences for Brexit, Johnson and the trajectory of the country more than three years after Britain narrowly voted to leave the bloc.
It's not clear what happens next.
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Lawmakers were scheduled to vote Saturday on a new withdrawal deal Johnson negotiated with the EU. The day had been dubbed "Super Saturday." But a last-minute motion tabled by opposition and rebel lawmakers closed down that vote.
Jeremy Corbyn, head of the opposition Labour Party, urged Johnson to comply with the law and said Saturday's defeat was an "emphatic" rejection of Johnson's plan.
"I will tell our friends and colleagues in the EU exactly what I’ve told everyone in the last 88 days that I’ve served as prime minister: that further delay would be bad for this country, bad for the European Union and bad for democracy," Johnson said.
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Britain's leader, a close ally of President Donald Trump, had hoped to win a vote on his deal that would have allowed him to claim victory over a Brexit process that has led to the resignation of his predecessors David Cameron and Theresa May; bitterly divided British households; and caused deep anxiety among the nation's business community, as well as among millions of EU nationals living in Britain and Britons living in EU nations on the continent. Saturday's surprise outcome upends that plan.
Johnson now faces the humiliation of Brexit unraveling after repeatedly promising to get it done by Oct 31. Earlier this year, Parliament passed separate legislation that compels the prime minister to ask the EU for a Brexit extension to avert a "no deal" Brexit. Johnson has been non-committal about his willingness to abide by that law, too.
Johnson could be forced out of office. He could resign. An election might be triggered.
Meanwhile, the EU has not fully committed to granting another extension if Johnson requests it, even as it wants to avoid a "no deal" Brexit because the EU's economy, security arrangements and other key infrastructure are linked to Britain's.
"It will be for the UK government to inform us about the next steps as soon as possible," EU Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said on Twitter. Andreeva said the Commission, the EU's executive branch, was not advising a course of action.
As the vote was taking place in London, thousands of people gathered on the streets to call for a "final say" on Johnson's deal.
"It's our future, we deserve to have a vote on something that will impact our lives," said Jen Thomas, 20, a college student, who was protesting for a "people's" vote on the terms Johnson negotiated with the EU.
May, who is backing Johnson's withdrawal deal with the EU, told lawmakers she had a "distinct sense of deja vu" as Parliament debated whether to back her successor's agreement with the 28-nation bloc. The former prime minister reluctantly stepped down in July after Parliament repeatedly threw out her Brexit deal.
The fate of the United Kingdom, made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is also to an extent tied to Brexit, if it happens.
Scotland’s top government official Nicola Sturgeon, who strongly opposes Brexit, told the Scottish National Party's annual conference this week that the U.K.'s central government in London has "shattered the case for the union." A 2014 Scottish independence vote failed to pass but polls show support has been rising as a result of Brexit and the Institute of Government, a think tank, published a report that concluded that a "no-deal" Brexit could bring the 300-year-old union to "breaking point."
Still, the dirty little secret is that Brexit is not complete even if it happens by Oct. 31. In fact, even if Britain leaves the EU at the end of this month from a legal perspective, the process of Brexit does not end there. Really in some sense it's just beginning.
The agreement that Britain and the EU are trying to get done before Oct. 31 establishes only the broad rules for a transition period as the two parties negotiate a new relationship on trade, consumer protections, security and more.
Some of the complication related to Brexit is about the status of EU-member Ireland's land border with Northern Ireland, which currently enjoys frictionless trade.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for example, has threatened to block a free trade deal Britain is hoping to sign with the United States if Britain's EU withdrawal undermines the Good Friday Agreement that ended Northern Ireland's violent conflict.
Johnson's deal is about limiting disruptions while those negotiations take place. The transition period would run to the end of December 2020.
Further muddying the waters: Polls show average support for staying in the EU among the British public is now almost exactly the opposite of where it was three years ago: 53% to 47% favor the "Remain" side. "Leave" won the 2016 vote 52% to 48%.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: British lawmakers halt key Brexit, force Boris Johnson to seek delay