An opposition-backed measure designed to stop Britain from crashing out of the EU on October 31 without a divorce deal became law after receiving the formal assent of Queen Elizabeth II. That came hours before legislators were set to reject Johnson’s demand for a snap election to break the political deadlock engulfing the government.
Meanwhile, Speaker John Bercow, whose control of business in the House of Commons has made him a central player in the Brexit drama, announced he would step down after a decade in the job. Johnson insists Britain must leave the 28-nation EU in just over 50 days, come what may, but acknowledged that leaving without an agreement on divorce terms “would be a failure of statecraft” for which he’d be partially to blame.
On a visit to Dublin, Johnson said he would “overwhelmingly prefer to find an agreement” and believed a deal could be struck by Oct. 18, when EU leaders hold a summit in Brussels. The comments marked a change of tone, if not substance, from Johnson, who is accused by opponents of driving Britain at full-tilt toward a cliff-edge Brexit.
Cabinet Minister Amber Rudd resigned over the weekend, saying she didn’t believe Johnson was sincere about seeking a deal. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned Johnson that “there’s no such thing as a clean break,” and if Britain crashed out, it would “cause severe disruption for British and Irish people alike.”
After their first meeting since Johnson became prime minister in July, the U.K. and Irish leaders said they’d had “a positive and constructive meeting,” but there was no breakthrough on the issue of the Irish border, the main stumbling block to a Brexit deal. The EU says Britain has not produced any concrete proposals for replacing the contentious “backstop,” a provision in the withdrawal agreement reached by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May that is designed to ensure an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland.
An open border is crucial to the regional economy and underpins the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Opposition to the backstop was a key reason Britain’s Parliament rejected May’s Brexit deal with the EU three times earlier this year. British Brexit-backers oppose the backstop because it locks Britain into EU trade rules to avoid customs checks, something they say will stop the U.K. from striking new trade deals with countries such as the United States. Varadkar said he was open to any alternatives that were “legally workable,” but none has been received so far.
“In the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, no backstop is no deal for us,” he said. “As for an extension, we’d like to see this dealt with but if there is a good reason to have an extension, we would consider it.” Johnson is adamant he won’t ask for an extension to the deadline, saying he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit. But an opposition-backed law compelling the government to seek a three-month delay from the EU if no deal has been agreed by Oct 19 became law Monday after receiving royal assent. Johnson has few easy ways out of it.
Amid the division, lawmakers were united in paying tribute to Bercow after he announced he will step down as speaker and member of Parliament on October 31.