Remainers are plotting to force Boris Johnson to beg for a Brexit extension tomorrow – by ‘neutering’ a vote on his newly-struck deal.
In a piece of Parliamentary trickery, an amendment tabled by rebel ringleaders would effectively block the PM from seeking approval for his deal until next week.
That would ensure he is caught by the Remainer law ordering him to send a letter to Brussels requesting an extension if no agreement has been passed by tomorrow.
The extraordinary tactics – backed by anti-Brexit campaigners including Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson and Labour’s Hilary Benn – emerged as Mr Johnson launched an all-out drive to get his package over the line in a special ‘Super Saturday’ sitting of the Commons.
After the deal was dramatically finalised with EU leaders yesterday, the government has tabled a motion asking for MPs to sign it off.
However, former Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin has put down a change that would gut the plan.
Instead MPs the text would be amended to say that ‘this House has considered the matter but withholds approval unless and until implementing legislation is passed.’
Former Tory backbencher Sir Oliver Letwin had led the attempt to change the timetable for the sitting – allowing for amendments to be tabled and voted on
Remainer MPs had hoped to amend the Prime Minister’s deal to add a ‘confirmatory’ public vote – ensuring it had to be approved by the public before Brexit could take place
The manoeuvring came after the shadow chancellor distanced the party from an attempt to force a second referendum.
Remainer MPs had hoped to amend the Prime Minister’s deal to add a ‘confirmatory’ public vote – ensuring it had to be approved by the public before Brexit could take place.
But last night campaigners decided not to force a Commons showdown on the issue tomorrow as they are not confident that enough former Tory MPs will support them, sources said.
How would Oliver Letwin’s amendment rain on PM’s parade?
Boris Johnson has tabled a motion asking MPs to sign off his Brexit deal after it was dramatically finalised with EU leaders yesterday,
The government text due to be voted on tomorrow states that the House ‘approves the negotiated withdrawal agreement’.
If it passes, the provision of the Benn Act – which says the PM must beg the EU for an extension unless a deal has been approved by tomorrow – will have been met.
The government would then start pushing through legislation to implement the detail of the agreement.
However, the amendment put forward by former Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin would change the motion to make clear that the House has not given approval.
Instead, MPs would specify that they are witholding support until after the legislation is fully finalised – effectively reversing the process.
The tweak is intended to close a loophole in the Benn Act, as in theory MPs could approve the deal in principle and then the government could refuse to bring forward legislation to achieve No Deal on October 31.
But the names signed up to the amendment have raised suspicions about the motivations.
Alongside Sir Oliver, fellow former Tories Philip Hammond, David Gauke Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles, Labour’s Hilary Benn, and Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson have signed up.
Instead, they will attempt to defeat the PM’s deal first – then, if it fails, table a motion for a second referendum when more MPs are likely to vote for it.
Mr McDonnell told the BBC’s Today programme: ‘We will talk to the opposition parties. We will look at the timing of that (amendment) because the deal will be debated on Saturday and then you’ll have to have the legislation brought forward.
‘There are discussions taking place about when is the right time to put an amendment down and, to be frank, I think on Saturday we should just vote the deal down, because it is such a bad deal.
‘And then maybe the Government will wake up and start working with other political parties about a sensible deal the British people can have before them.’
Last night Labour’s Peter Kyle, the mover behind legislation to force a second referendum, indicated he might still attempt to force an amendment through on Saturday.
He tweeted: ‘Our proposal was always about consensus and still is. We have the amendment drafted, we have bags of support for it, and tomorrow (Friday) lunchtime will take the decision about when we’ll table it.’
The plan to amend the deal on Saturday is thought to have been quietly pulled in order to give it the best chance to succeed in future.
A source familiar with the campaign said: ‘The focus on Saturday has to be stopping the deal. The best chance of getting a ‘People’s Vote’ may well be after this deal is defeated.’
Had MPs managed to successfully amend the deal to add a second referendum it is likely Downing Street would have pulled it entirely before it actually came to a final vote. Mr Johnson’s government has repeatedly made clear its implacable opposition to a second public vote.
The decision by Remainer MPs to back away yesterday followed confusion over whether Labour would actually back a second referendum in a vote on ‘Super Saturday’.
Speaking soon after it was announced a deal had been done, party leader Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote.’
However, he added he did not ‘suspect’ that the option of holding a second referendum vote would arise on Saturday, when Parliament is due to give its verdict on Mr Johnson’s agreement.
He then described reports that Labour could back such a vote as ‘high-level speculation on a hypothetical question’.
In a sign of the deep split within the party, members of Mr Corbyn’s shadow cabinet have since said they plan to make the ‘argument’ for a second referendum to the Prime Minister themselves.
Mr McDonnell told the BBC’s Today programme: ‘There are discussions taking place about when is the right time to put an amendment down and, to be frank, I think on Saturday we should just vote the deal down, because it is such a bad deal’
Jeremy Corbyn said: ‘The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote’
The Liberal Democrats said they would vote for the deal at its third reading if a referendum was attached to it.
Former Tory backbencher Sir Oliver had led the attempt to change the timetable for tomorrow’s sitting – allowing for amendments to be tabled and voted on.
It passed by 287 votes to 275, and means an amendment to Mr Johnson’s Brexit plans to include a proposed second referendum is now possible. Sir Oliver suggested that it could close a loophole in the so-called Benn Act – which requires the PM to seek a Brexit delay if he does not have a deal by October 19. The law only compels the PM to seek an extension if MPs fail to pass a motion.
He told MPs: ‘That will enable those of us, like me, who wish to support and carry through and eventually see the ratification of this deal, not to put us in the position of allowing the Government off the Benn Act hook on Saturday.’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the European Council summit at EU headquarters in Brussels, October 17
The original plan advanced by proponents of a ‘confirmatory vote’ was that MPs would pass an amendment making the Brexit deal conditional on a referendum. Once it was amended, they would then vote with the Government for the deal.
But a number of Labour MPs have concerns about anything that would appear to be offering support to Mr Johnson, and a potentially larger group have concerns about supporting a referendum at all.
Earlier this month, 19 Labour MPs in favour of leaving the EU with a deal wrote to Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, asking the pair to ‘work night and day’ to secure a Withdrawal Agreement they could back.
It remains to be seen whether those backbenchers will support Mr Johnson tomorrow.
Yesterday, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove told BBC Politics Live there would not be a second referendum.
‘Ain’t gonna happen,’ he said. ‘Ain’t gonna be no second referendum. It just won’t happen.’