And the prime minister’s Brexit deal itself could be killed off on Tuesday, if MPs deny his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) a second reading in its first real test in parliament.
Mr Johnson failed in a bid to secure MPs’ approval of the withdrawal agreement on Monday, after speaker John Bercow rejected his “unreasonable” plea to re-run the debate which led to humiliating defeat for the PM on Saturday.
There was an outburst of fury from the opposition as commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg set out plans to give MPs until Thursday to scrutinise and pass a ratification bill.
There is now a real prospect that MPs will reject the breakneck timetable – including late-night sittings in the Commons and the Lords working through the weekend – and insist on more time for deliberation of a complex piece of legislation with far-reaching implications for life in the UK over decades to come.
The government indicated it was confident it has the numbers to survive the second reading vote.
But a narrow margin of victory on Tuesday would send tremors of unease through Downing Street over possible defeat on amendments in the coming days to keep the UK in the EU’s customs union or to make Johnson’s deal subject to a Final Say referendum.
Amendments are also likely to be tabled to close a loophole in the PM’s withdrawal plan which could see the UK crash out of the EU at the end of 2020 with no deal on future trade arrangements.
“Much depends on the result at second reading,” said one MP. “If he wins by 40 or 50 votes, that gives him a fair wind. If he wins by one vote, his bill is not going to come out at the other end unchanged.”
Feverish cross-party discussions are under way on the best tactics and timing to ensure maximum support for a vote on a confirmatory referendum, which supporters insist has a real chance of passing this week.
Peter Kyle, who is set to table a second referendum bill with fellow Labour MP Phil Wilson, told The Independent: “By the time this withdrawal bill is through the House of Commons, we are either going to have a general election or a referendum. Those are the only two outcomes from the next two weeks. If the Johnson deal goes through, he will go straight to an election.”
The three-day timetable set out by Mr Rees-Mogg was denounced from all sides as inadequate.
The commons leader’s Labour shadow Valerie Vaz said: “At every stage the government has been running scared of this House and democracy and it’s now attempting to force through a flawed Brexit deal which sells out people’s jobs, rights and our communities.”
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Trying to ram through legislation of this complexity, significance and long-lasting consequences in just three days is an abomination of scrutiny and democracy.”
And the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson said that the truncated period for scrutiny “does not do justice to what the constituents I represent need”.
MPs pointed out that the Maastricht Treaty had 41 days’ debate in parliament and the Treaty of Rome had 37, compared to the maximum of eight proposed by the government for the WAB to get through all stages in the Commons and Lords.
The furious rejection of the prime minister’s Brexit plan by his confidence-and-supply allies has raised expectations that the DUP may be willing to add their potentially decisive 10 votes to efforts to secure a customs union or second referendum.
Defeat on the timetable would certainly wreck the PM’s plan to leave the EU with a deal on 31 October, leaving the UK reliant on a Brexit extension to avoid a no-deal crash-out at the end of the month, while almost certainly ending any chance of an election before Christmas. The EU has yet to indicate when it will respond to Mr Johnson’s request for an extension, amid speculation that leaders of the remaining 27 EU states may wait until next Monday to make their decision.
The government’s no-deal supremo Michael Gove revealed his preparations committee is meeting seven days a week as the deadline approaches.
He told MPs: “With no clear agreement yet in this house to ratify our withdrawal agreement and no certainty that an extension will be granted by 31 October, I must, I fear, take the appropriate steps now to prepare for the increased possibility that the legal default position will follow and we will leave on 31 October without a deal.
“The clear advice to me from officials is that we must now intensify contingency arrangements.”
He warned a no-deal Brexit would present “formidable challenges”, probably including the reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, Downing Street warned that significant amendment of the WAB could wreck the international treaty reached with the EU last Thursday.
The PM’s official spokesman said: “If the legislation in the House of Commons steps too far away from what was agreed in the withdrawal agreement and political declaration that does bring into question ratification.”
And Mr Johnson himself said: “We have negotiated a new deal so that we can leave without disruption and provide a framework for a new relationship based on free trade and friendly co-operation. We are leaving the European Union but we will always be European.
“I hope Parliament today votes to take back control for itself and the British people and the country can start to focus on the cost of living, the NHS, and conserving our environment. The public doesn’t want any more delays, neither do other European leaders and neither do I. Let’s get Brexit done on 31 October and move on.”
A People’s Vote letter to MPs, MEPs and European leaders calling for a second referendum can be signed at www.peoples-vote.uk/letter.
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