Boris Johnson has finally won a vote as Prime Minister. It is his first, having lost every vote he had previously brought. But whatever comfort brought by persuading Parliament to back his deal – by a surprisingly comfortable margin of thirty – was short-lived. The House then immediately rejected the Bill’s Programme Motion (the part thatgoverns the schedule of debate and scrutiny), thereby stripping the Government of its ability to force the legislation through at pace. That matters because the coalition that delivered a majority for him tonight is unstable and his best bet for holding it together was a sense of momentum. The last time this happened was when the coalition attempted reform of the House of Lords. Deprived of their Programme Motion, the Government saw its majority for reform picked off in a long and agonising war of attrition. It is not, therefore, surprising that Johnson has decided instead to pause this legislation. He is going to hunker down and explore his options rather than march onwards intoenemy territory whilst deprived of Governments’ customary tactical advantages.
What happens next? The Prime Minister has said that he will now confer with the EU. He will tell his fellow leaders that he does not desire or need an extension in the hope that if one is not forthcoming then perhaps he could finally frighten the Commons into a quickened pace. He did not choose to accept Jeremy Corbyn’s offer of a negotiation over the timetable this evening. Why? Because he sees that Corbyn wants to ensure that when a delay comes – as, failing the EU deciding to weigh fully in behind Johnson (very unlikely) – surely it must that there is blood on the Prime Minister’s hands too. Johnson may well accept now that the 31st is almost impossible as an exit date. But he wants to be able to lay the blame for any further delay squarely at the feet of the opposition. Nigel Farage is back on the fringes, for now, and Johnson wants to keep him there.
A bittersweet victory for Johnson tonight, then, followed swiftly by a return to form and a brutalising defeat. A General Election will seem tempting – “let’s get this thing done” – but Johnson does not yet have the numbers to secure one. And so the best option for Johnson would seem to be the EU offering a very short, technical extension simply to progress the legislation – eight weeks, say. Johnson could then huff, puff and lay the blame at the doors of Corbyn, the Lib Dems and the European Commission. But of course that doesn’t solve his medium term problem. Because amendments will flow – Customs Union, second referendum, so on and so forth. And each one that passes causes the Prime Minister a headache in one direction or another. The Government is stuck in the Brexit quagmire and the Prime Minister is living on a prayer.