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Boris Johnson will on Monday make another attempt to win parliament’s backing for his Brexit deal, amid growing confidence that he can overcome a series of setbacks at the weekend and now has the backing of the 320 MPs needed for victory.
Mr Johnson insists he can still deliver Brexit on October 31, despite losing a crucial vote on Saturday and being forced to write to the EU seeking a three-month delay to the Article 50 exit process.
“We appear to have the numbers to get it through,” Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, told the BBC. Calculations by the Financial Times suggest Mr Johnson is on course to win by five votes, but the result is on a knife-edge.
The UK prime minister has a two-pronged strategy for making progress this week: either winning a new “meaningful vote” on Monday or by securing a majority when legislation implementing the deal is put to a vote on Tuesday.
The idea of a new “meaningful vote” on the deal — replacing the vote aborted by Mr Johnson on Saturday after MPs effectively voted to delay giving their approval — may be scuppered on Monday if the Commons Speaker John Bercow refuses to allow it.
Government insiders admit that a more likely route is the second reading of the withdrawal agreement bill on Tuesday, where MPs will be asked to vote on whether they agree with the principle of Mr Johnson’s new deal.
Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the Treasury, said he hoped Mr Bercow would allow MPs a “straight up and down, clean vote” on Mr Johnson’s Brexit plan on Monday before they started scrutinising exit legislation.
Mr Sunak said opposition parties hoping to amend the withdrawal agreement bill — either by trying to keep Britain in the customs union or by forcing a second referendum — were trying to “frustrate Brexit altogether”.
In early trading in Asia, sterling was as much as 0.6 per cent lower against the dollar at $1.29 as the market reacted to Saturday’s aborted vote. Sterling was also down 0.4 per cent to £0.8640 per euro.
Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, said Labour could back the new deal provided it was subject to a second referendum. Mr Johnson is fiercely opposed to a new vote and the House of Commons has so far failed to back one on any occasion.
Labour is also backing amendments to soften the economic impact of Mr Johnson’s “hard Brexit” strategy. They want to rewrite the law to force the prime minister to keep the UK in the EU’s customs union and close to the single market.
If Mr Johnson wins Tuesday’s vote he will bring forward a “programme motion” to accelerate the Brexit legislation through the Commons and Lords in time for the October 31 deadline.
“The public will expect us to move at pace to get the withdrawal agreement passed so we can leave on October 31,” a government source said. Late-night sittings in the Commons and weekend sittings in the Lords are expected.
EU ambassadors met in Brussels on Sunday to discuss the latest Brexit chaos at Westminster and agreed to continue preparations for the ratification of an exit deal in time for Britain’s possible departure on November 1.
The EU will probably offer a short extension to Mr Johnson if he needs more time to ratify his deal, or a longer extension if the government cannot win MPs’ backing for the deal and a general election follows.
“An election is coming soon in any scenario,” said one ally of the prime minister. The only question in Number 10 is whether there is time to hold a poll before Christmas or whether Mr Johnson will have to wait until next spring.
Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, said on Sunday he was “triggering Operation Yellowhammer” — the government’s no-deal contingency plans — in case the EU refused to grant Mr Johnson’s request for an extension.
“The risk of leaving without a deal has actually increased because we cannot guarantee that the European Council will grant an extension,” Mr Gove told Sky’s Sophy Ridge.
According to an analysis by the Financial Times based on past voting records and public statements, there could be a majority of five for the Brexit deal. Some 320 MPs appear set to back Mr Johnson’s deal, with 315 opposed.
Mr Johnson’s Commons defeat at the weekend meant MPs have delayed approval of his deal until after the withdrawal agreement bill had been agreed by parliament.
He could, therefore, not meet the deadline of October 19, set down under the so-called Benn act, to win Commons support for his deal. He has been forced by the act to write a letter to the EU seeking a delay to Brexit until January 31 2020.
Mr Johnson’s reluctance to seek the extension was manifested by his decision to send three letters to Brussels late on Saturday night, including an unsigned letter to Donald Tusk, European Council president.
Mr Tusk said he was now consulting EU member states on the terms of any extension. David Allen Green, a law and policy columnist for the Financial Times, said Mr Johnson’s failure to sign the letter was “an utter red herring”.
Some MPs who backed the Letwin amendment delaying approval — including Oliver Letwin himself — said they would back Mr Johnson’s deal now they were reassured that there was no risk that Britain could accidentally leave the EU without a deal.
With additional reporting by Daniel Shane
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