PM faces down MPs pushing for concessions to prevent no deal before agreeing to timetable
Boris Johnson has threatened to pull the Brexit legislation and seek an election rather than accept a three-month delay, but hinted he could live with a very short extension from the EU.
Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, the prime minister attempted to stop MPs voting down his timetable for the legislation that gives them only three-days to scrutinise the bill.
He said any vote against his programme motion would delay Brexit for three months as the EU was considering an extension until the end of January that was requested under the Benn Act.
I will in no way allow months more of this. If parliament refuses to allow Brexit to happen and instead gets its way and decides to delay everything until January or possibly longer, in no circumstances can the government continue with this. And with great regret, I must say the bill will have to be pulled and we will have to go forward to a general election, he said.
A No 10 source highlighted the key caveat that the bill would be pulled only if the EU grants a three-month extension the length of delay requested under the Benn act. It raises the possibility that Johnson could accept a shorter extension if one were to be offered by the EU but this is unlikely given the legal letter that he sent asks for a three-month delay.
The No 10 source said: If parliament votes again for delay by voting down the programme motion, and the EU offers delay until 31 January then we will pull the bill, there will be no further business for parliament and well move to an election before Christmas.
No 10 would not elaborate on the length of extension that Johnson could accept, but a source suggested to the FT that 10 days could be acceptable.
Johnson made the threat as Downing Street tries to face down soft-Brexit Conservative MPs who are refusing to agree to the accelerated timetable without further concessions to stop a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020
The former chancellor Philip Hammond and Rory Stewart, another former cabinet minister, are leading the rebellion against the programme motion if there is no mechanism to prevent the UK from crashing out on World Trade Organization terms at the end of 2020.
Hammond told the Times the bill was a camouflage to a no-deal Brexit at the end of 2020. Stewart, another of the 21 Tories who had the party whip withdrawn last month, said he and some of his fellow rebels had been negotiating through the night to give parliament more control over the next phase of the Brexit negotiations, including being able to vote for an extension to the talks.
However, the group of 21 former Tory MPs is split, meaning the government could possibly narrowly still win with the backing of some Labour MPs.
Margot James, another of the whipless Tories, said she was planning to support the government on all votes. Ed Vaizey, another former Conservative, also indicated he was planning to vote for Johnsons timetable, although he said he may change his mind if Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the house, continued to send ludicrous tweets saying a vote against the programme motion is a vote against Brexit.
Others are agonising over the decision, amid fears there could be consequences of Johnsons Brexit deal that will take longer than three days to spot.
No 10s threat to pull the bill appear intended to scare MPs who want a Brexit deal passed before an election.
MPs have been given three days to consider the withdrawal agreement bill (WAB), the legislation that formally puts the Brexit deal into law under treaty, prompting concern the process is being rushed.
The Commons will vote on Monday evening on the programme motion, which sets out this timetable, shortly after voting on the second reading for the bill.
Many MPs have voiced fears that a clause of the WAB allowing an extension to the transition period beyond the end of 2020 can only be triggered by ministers, not parliament, and that if no trade deal was completed before then, it could be a trapdoor to no deal.
However, Johnsons spokesman insisted the 2020 deadline was sufficient, and that the PM had no intention of allowing a longer extension period.
Its set out very clearly in the political declaration that the UK and the EU sides both agree that the implementation period concludes at the end of 2020, he said. The prime minister has been clear on any number of occasions that he is not intending to extend the implementation period.
To deal with the issue of a 2020 crash-out, Nick Boles, a former Tory, said he had tabled an amendment that would go even further, making a two-year extension to the transition period automatic if there were no trade deal in place by the end of next year.
He said it would would require the government to seek an extension to the transition to December 2022 unless MPs vote to the contrary essential to stop hardline ERG members forcing through a no-deal Brexit in December 2020.
Clause 30, among a series of contentious clauses identified in the 115-page WAB, which MPs first saw on Monday evening, dictates that only ministers can seek a longer transition period, even though this must then be approved by parliament.
Hilary Benn, the Labour MP who chairs the Brexit select committee, tweeted: What happens if the government doesnt propose an extension? Parliament would have no say and we would exit the transition period on the 31 December 2020 even if a trade agreement hadnt been reached by then with the EU; ie no deal.
The Green MP, Caroline Lucas, called the clause the trapdoor to no deal, adding: If the government doesnt propose an extension to the transition, MPs have no say, and therefore if negotiations on future relationship unfinished by end of December next year, were out.