Boris Johnson’s careful Brexit compromise was blown out of the water this afternoon after he was outflanked by two former Tories.
Former Cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin continued his run of parliamentary scheming with his amendment that put the Prime minister’s withdrawal agreement in a legislative straight jacket.
MPs voted 322-306 to approve his edit to the meaningful vote that forces the PM to write a letter to Brussels demanding a delay to Brexit or risk breaking the law.
He was able to do this after Speaker John Bercow allowed the amendment to be put top a vote, picking it first this morning.
He surprised Westminster watchers by making his decision just before Mr Johnson got to his feet to make a speech imploring MPs to back the deal hammered out with Brussels.
One pro-Brexit Conservative vented his frustration at Sir Oliver, saying: ‘Letwin is a pariah.’
Former Cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin continued his run of parliamentary scheming with his amendment that put the Prime minister’s withdrawal agreement in a legislative straight jacket
He was able to do this after Speaker John Bercow allowed the amendment to be put top a vote, picking it first this morning
The government was condemned to defeat when 10 former Tories teamed up with Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the DUP and a rag-tag bag of independents. In a boost for Mr Johnson, no current Conservative MPs rebelled – although one, Caroline Spelman, appears to have abstained
The West Dorset MP was one of 21 Conservatives expelled from the party in September for not supporting Johnson’s pledge to leave the EU on October 31 with or without a deal, and he has focused his parliamentary acumen on preventing a no-deal Brexit.
Letwin criticised Johnson’s bid to present lawmakers with a ‘deal or no deal’ choice.
‘I, despite my support for the prime minister’s deal, do not believe that it is responsible to put the nation at risk by making that threat,’ he told parliament during Saturday’s three-hour debate.
Oliver Letwin (pictured left in the Commons today) tabled the extraordinary amendment to block the PM’s crunch vote later. Former chancellor Ken Clarke (right) said he will back the deal when legislation comes before Parliament
The Remain voter’s amendment withholds parliamentary approval of the Brexit deal until after legislation has been put on the statute book. It forces Boris Johnson to ask the EU to delay the UK’s departure beyond October 31.
It would also robbed the Prime Minister of the chance to test the will of the House of Commons to see if a majority of MPs support his Brexit deal.
Sir Oliver has insisted that the move is just about bolstering protections against a No Deal split from the EU.
But his critics believe it is nothing less than a wrecking amendment designed to stop the UK leaving the EU.
Educated at Eton and then Cambridge, the 63-year-old first entered politics as a member of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in Number 10 in the 1980s.
In the ‘Super Saturday’ showdown in the House of Commons today, Boris Johnson complained he was being prevented from forcing a ‘meaningful’ decision by Letwin amendment
He was then first elected as the Tory MP for West Dorset in 1997 before making a rapid rise up the ranks, joining the opposition frontbench and eventually becoming shadow chancellor in 2003.
He became a key figure in David Cameron’s administration, acting as the PM’s ‘fixer’, after he helped to draw up the Tories’ 2010 election manifesto.
After being a constant in Mr Cameron’s governments, Sir Oliver was then ousted from the frontbench by Theresa May when she became PM in 2016.
Sir Oliver is regarded as a ‘big brain’ in Whitehall circles and is viewed as a man who has a gift for creative thinking and problem solving.
But he has over the years developed a reputation as a hapless politician who has been prone to gaffes and finding himself in embarrassing situations.
He once unwittingly welcomed two burglars into his London home after they said they wanted to use the bathroom.
He was also once spotted discarding parliamentary papers into a bin in St James’s Park.
Before the 2001 election he and his local challengers dressed up in togas for a debate.
In 2015 he apologised after it emerged he had blamed ‘bad moral attitudes’ in black inner-city communities for riots in the 1980s in a paper he had helped write.
Outside of politics, Sir Oliver is married and has two children.
He is expected to stand down as an MP at the next election.
Speaker John Bercow has emerged as a parliamentary bete noir of Brexiteers. He was elected as Tory MP for Buckingham in 1997 but has been the Speaker – and therefore an independent – since 2009.
He has made a series of decisions that have infuriated Mr Johnson’s Government and that of Theresa may before him.
He is due to stand down at the end of the month.
Earlier this month he faced allegations of ‘plotting’ today after it emerged he met the EU parliament chief to discuss their ‘shared’ desire to avoid No Deal.
David Sassoli revealed he held talks with Mr Bercow in London, telling MEPs they were on the ‘same wavelength’.
Mr Sassoli said the pair agreed that the UK and EU Parliaments must have a key role in ‘managing’ the Brexit process.
‘We share an awareness that a chaotic exit of the UK from the EU would work to the detriment of citizens on both sides,’ he said.
But the news sparked anger from Eurosceptics including Nigel Farage, who said it was a ‘disgrace’ that the president and the Speaker had ‘agreed to work to prevent a clean break Brexit’.
‘What right does the Speaker have to do this?’ he demanded.
The Speaker is meant to be an impartial referee of debates, but Mr Bercow has repeatedly been ‘creative’ with the rules to frustrate the government – saying his duty was to champion MPs against the executive.
Theresa May’s Brexit plans were thwarted partly as a result of his intervention, and last month a rebel law was passed ordering the PM to beg the EU for a Brexit extension if he has not secured a deal by October 19.
Mr Bercow was also at the centre of protests against the PM’s decision to prorogue Parliament in the run-up to Brexit, saying it was ‘not normal’.
At Tory conference last week, the current Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said he admired many of the things the Speaker had done in his 10-year tenure.
But he said Mr Bercow’s ‘recent mistakes’ had brought the public standing of the House to ‘the lowest point in modern history’.
Allies of the PM have made clear he will not follow the convention that Commons Speakers are automatically elevated to the upper chamber when they resign.
Mr Bercow dramatically announced last month that he will stand down from the chair and as an MP on October 31 – symbolically choosing Boris Johnson’s ‘do or die’ Brexit date.
WHAT HAPPENS TO BREXIT NOW?
What happens if Boris Johnson does not send the letter to the EU asking for a Brexit delay?
The Hillary Benn Law says the Prime Minister must send a letter to Brussels asking for a Brexit extension.
But Boris Johnson vowed not to negotiate a Brexit delay in the Commons this afternoon.
He said: ‘I will not negotiate a delay with the EU and neither does the law compel me to do so.’
If the Prime Minister does not send the letter, he would be breaking the law and Remainers would start legal action to stop him.
What legal loophole does Boris Johnson think he has found?
Number 10 may well have concluded that it can send the letter while also spelling out to the EU, potentially in a second letter or through other means, that the government does not actually want a delay in the hope the EU does not offer one.
What can Remainers do to stop the PM if he does not comply with the Benn Act?
If the PM failed to send the letter or tried to frustrate the purpose of the Benn Act then Remainers will almost certainly launch legal action and the battle over Brexit would head to the courts.
The turnaround on any legal action would likely be swift with a potential Supreme Court hearing in a matter of days.
What does the Benn Act actually ask the PM to do?
Contained within the legislation is a pre-written letter which the PM is required to sign and send to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, by the end of today if no Brexit deal has been agreed by MPs.
It asks the EU to postpone the Brexit divorce date until January 31 next year. The letter reads:
‘The UK Parliament has passed the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019. Its provisions now require Her Majesty’s Government to seek an extension of the period provided under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, including as applied by Article 106a of the Euratom Treaty, currently due to expire at 11.00pm GMT on 31 October 2019, until 11.00pm GMT on 31 January 2020.