This was supposed to be the week in which the UK finally staggered out of the Brexit-related darkness and began to consider the future – having spent three and a half years arguing about the past.
Boris Johnson, against the odds, renegotiated the Brexit withdrawal agreement and was on the cusp on winning parliamentary approval for it, a feat which three times eluded his predecessor.
True, it had come at a cost (losing the support of the DUP) but Conservative MPs and a small band of Labour rebels were prepared to recognise that the deal on the table was the only viable way to deliver on the 2016 referendum result.
The deal was described as “admirable” by Sir Oliver Letwin who declared that he will be supporting it — just not yet. His amendment, which prevents the Commons from endorsing the deal until all associated legislation is completed, allowed every single anti-Brexit MP (and there are a lot) to regroup and plot the unpicking of the withdrawal agreement.
Lib Dem MP Layla Moran and the Green party’s Caroline Lucas posed for a beaming Commons selfie and tweeted: “We have won the Letwin amendment! The fight for the People’s Vote to stop Brexit continues!” And so, with the time granted to them by Letwin, MPs will line up this week to push for a confirmatory referendum as well as permanent membership of the EU Customs Union.
Johnson’s critics in parliament claimed he didn’t want a deal — indeed, that no-deal was his preference. Having confounded them, these same MPs are now set to demand membership of the Customs Union.
This is becoming intolerable. Despite Mark Carney describing Johnson’s new deal as “a net economic positive” and despite the fact that, as the UK’s former EU commissioner for financial services Lord Hill put it yesterday, the EU is in no mood to prolong this process, MPs will continue to try and prevent the UK’s departure from the EU.
In doing so they are testing the patience of the public and the business community as yet more uncertainty becomes the price paid for parliamentary chicanery and political intransigence.
The government, which currently operates without the benefit of a working majority, will still try to push through the legislation by 31 October, thus complying with the Letwin amendment while sticking to their own preferred timetable, but it will be an almighty, perhaps impossible task – made harder by the fact that Letwin has emboldened and strengthened those who will stop at nothing to prevent the UK leaving the EU.