British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces two crucial Brexit votes Tuesday that could decide if he still has a reasonable shot at securing his EU divorce by next week’s deadline.
The UK is entering a cliffhanger finale to a drama that has divided families and embittered politics ever since voters backed a split from Britain’s 27 EU allies and trading partners in 2016.
Johnson has set himself a very high bar by promising that he will get Brexit done — “do or die’” — by the twice-delayed October 31 departure date.
The Conservative leader now hopes parliament gives initial support to a Brexit bill that translates the revised withdrawal agreement he struck with Brussels last week into UK law.
He then hopes the lower House of Commons commits to passing the entire legislation in three days — a heavy lift for a 110-page text designed to unwind 46 years of intricate EU-UK ties.
Failure in either of Tuesday’s votes could deliver a potentially devastating blow to Johnson that will probably see the process prolonged again.
Parliament has already forced Johnson to request a three-month extension that European leaders will consider once they get a clearer picture of how the battles in parliament play out.
Outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Tuesday the EU has “done all in our power” to assure an orderly divorce.
Extra time could allow opposition lawmakers to try and secure much closer future trade relations with the bloc than the firmer break envisioned by Johnson.
Pro-European Britons have also held massive rallies in London demanding a second Brexit referendum, which could allow for the result of the first to be overturned.
A delay would give Johnson a fresh stab at an early election designed to give him the parliamentary majority needed to avoid these scenarios and get his legislation through.
And victory in both of Tuesday’s votes would by no means guarantee that Johnson will manage to get Britain out in the remaining eight days.
The main opposition Labour Party has vowed to fight the government’s attempt to ram through the legislation at breakneck speed.
A three-day process would still likely see Labour and its allies try to attach amendments that are unpalatable to the government.
“Labour will seize every opportunity through the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to safeguard workers’ rights, protect our economy and ensure the people are given the final say,” the left-wing party’s finance spokesman John McDonnell wrote in the Daily Mirror newspaper.
“MPs have an opportunity to reject the false choice between Boris Johnson’s bad deal and no deal,” he wrote.
Government sources told The Daily Telegraph newspaper that Johnson could pull the bill if it gets weighed down with amendments his Conservatives cannot accept.
The same sources warned that Johnson would then try to call an “immediate” election that could be held as early as next month.
Johnson said most Britons just wanted to get Brexit resolved.
“The public doesn’t want any more delays, neither do other European leaders and neither do I,” Johnson said Monday.
“Let’s get Brexit done on 31 October and move on.”
‘Repetitive and disorderly’
Johnson is coming off a string of parliamentary defeats that underscore the travails his minority government faces as it oversees a historic break from Europe.
His initial attempts to get a version of the new Brexit legislation through were thwarted at a very rare weekend sitting and then again Monday.
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow ruled the government’s bid to push the same Brexit proposal through parliament twice in three days “repetitive and disorderly”.
British newspapers expect Johnson to win the first vote Tuesday that essentially agrees to examine the proposed legislation.
But the second vote on the shortened timeline is widely seen as too close to call.
Johnson’s rapid success would see the legislation move to the upper House of Lords of Friday.
The debate there is expected to last two days.
The new deal must further ratified by the European Parliament before Brexit finally takes effect.