This was a good news/bad news day for Boris Johnson. The good news was that for the very first time the House of Commons has given its in-principle support to a Brexit withdrawal agreement. This is a major psychological step and one on which few would have bet even two weeks ago. Not only did the prime minister win, he won by 30 votes.
• UK Parliament backs Boris Johnson's Brexit bill
The bad news is that, by voting down his insultingly truncated timetable designed to secure passage of the legislation in just three days, MPs have almost certainly pushed Brexit beyond the October 31 deadline that Mr Johnson said was inviolate. More important than a few days slippage is that they now have the time to pursue some seriously wrecking amendments to the bill.
Fear of this is what pushed Number 10 into its now rather typical intemperate threat to pull the whole bill if it lost that vote and to force an election. In fact, MPs' rejection of the ludicrously short timetable was entirely reasonable. They would have been remiss to do otherwise. One cannot understate this government's ability to shoot itself in the foot with its parliamentary tactics but, with a majority of 30 on the second reading of this legislation, Mr Johnson would be foolish to pull the bill now. It would be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Speaking after the vote, Mr Johnson in fact stopped short of that threat, saying only that he would pause the legislation until EU leaders had decided on an extension. His new ultimatum is that he will not continue unless that extension is short and he is counting on the EU playing ball. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn offered to agree a more suitable timetable, but the prime minister ignored the offer. This was churlish. If he does wish to progress he will need to reach agreement with the opposition. In any case his threat to suspend the process and force an election if the EU insists on a January extension is an empty one — he cannot get an election unless the opposition parties grant him one.
For all his attachment to the Brexit deadline Mr Johnson's attempt to allow just three days to scrutinise one of the most important measures ever to come before parliament was unnecessarily antagonistic. His insistence on the October 31 date is entirely political. Brexit has taken so long that most leavers will forgive another two weeks' delay if that is what it takes to get it over the line.
While the win on the second reading of the legislation is a big moment, the defeat over the timetable motion shows he is still not guaranteed victory. The bill can still be lost at any point. It can also be amended so heavily that he decides to pull the legislation. His victory in the first vote was due to 19 Labour MPs who backed his deal in principle, but a number of them are likely to back amendments he does not wish to see.
There are at least three very dangerous amendments so far, but more specific ones are likely to follow. The first threat is a move to attach a second referendum to the deal.
The second and more risky for the government is a Labour plan to amend the deal to insist that the UK negotiate continued membership of the customs union. The votes on this look very close. Some Tories think he might accept the defeat to secure the bill, then try to overturn the plan after what he hopes would be an election victory. But he could equally conclude that this wrecks the bill and decide to withdraw the legislation and demand an election.
The third obvious risk is a move to prevent a new cliff-edge scenario after Brexit, if agreement on a new free-trade deal has not been reached by the end of 2020. The agreement allows either side to extend the implementation period if they need more time to strike the trade deal. Brexit hardliners do not want an extension so Mr Johnson's opponents are planning an amendment to insist on parliamentary approval being required if the government chooses not to extend. Mr Johnson may feel able to live with this though his hardliners will hate it. Other amendments on workers rights and environmental protections, for example, are bound to follow.
So a fierce battle is still ahead. But after years of setbacks the Brexit process has finally advanced. Mr Johnson has made some progress.
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Predicting Brexit is a precarious business but the most logical outcome is that Mr Johnson will accept a more reasonable timetable motion and continue with the legislation. This will probably breach the October 31 deadline and so necessitate the EU granting at least a short extension of the deadline. If he can keep the extension to only two or three weeks, Mr Johnson will probably swallow his pride for the wider win.
Remainers may be cheering the defeat to the timetable motion, but in the wider scheme of things leavers probably still have more reason to smile.
Written by: Robert Shrimsley
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