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ANALYSIS: Will Boris Johnson pass his Withdrawal Agreement Bill and deliver Brexit by October 31?

ANALYSIS: Will Boris Johnson pass his Withdrawal Agreement Bill and deliver Brexit by October 31?
4 min read

With just nine days to go until the Brexit deadline Boris Johnson is in a race against time and MPs to get his deal into law and avoid an extension to Article 50.

But the Prime Minister faces several hurdles in his bid to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill - known as the WAB - before October 31 unscathed.

The first is the Second Reading of the legislation, the opening Parliamentary salvo, which is due to take place around 7pm on Tuesday.

If the Government loses then effectively that pulls the plug on Mr Johnson’s plans and he would be forced to accept a delay to Brexit.

The expectation is he would then call for a general election with the message that MPs are frustrating the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and he needs a majority to see it through.

A long way short of a majority and unable to rely on the support of the DUP, Westminster has spent the last week trying to work out if the numbers are there for the vote to pass.

Some now believe the PM could just sneak through with the support of a handful of Labour and independent members who are in favour of a Brexit deal in principle.

If he does win then Mr Johnson will move onto his second and perhaps the most difficult hurdle; the Programme Motion.

Essentially a vote on this week’s timetable, it sets out the schedule for getting the WAB through all stages in the Commons by close of play Thursday.

But this has come under severe criticism already, with MPs angry at being given just three days to scrutinise incredibly important legislation stretching more than 100 pages.

It means the PM is likely to lose the vote, due after the division on the second reading, and put the October 31 deadline in serious jeopardy.

If it is rejected the Government will either have to come back with a revised programme motion, giving Parliament more time to pass the bill, or they could withdraw it altogether.

In either scenario the PM will be forced to accept he cannot take the UK out of the EU with a deal by Hallowe’en and face an extension, which could also prompt him to call for an election.

Mr Johnson could manage to persuade enough MPs to back it however, though much will depend on his ability to convince ex-Tory rebels that the bill will give Parliament enough scrutiny of any future trade deal with the EU.


The next hurdle is to try and get the WAB into law without it being amended significantly, with Labour already suggesting they plan to add a clause forcing the PM to negotiate the UK staying in the EU Customs Union.

And there is also a plan to attach a second referendum to the deal, both of which the Government is warning would put the ratification process in doubt.

Both the UK and EU parliaments must pass agreement negotiated last week into law, and a spokesman for Downing Street said if the legislation “steps too far away” from that it could halt the entire process.

If either amendment is passed, Mr Johnson is likely to pull the bill rather than see a customs union or second referendum become law.

This would once again leave him facing a Brexit extension and could precipitate an election to change the make-up of the House of Commons.

The final hurdle is the House of Lords. If the WAB can be sped through the lower chamber it will be sent up for peers to scrutinise it over the weekend.

While the upper house no longer has the powers it once had to stymie the Government, it could still hold up the bill, and with the timing so tight it could prove a decisive blow.

The PM must hope they do not amend the bill either, otherwise it enters what is known as legislative ‘ping-pong’, where it bounces between the Commons and Lords, eating into the precious sitting days before October 31.

If he can survive that, then Mr Johnson can move towards a negotiated exit – but to coin a phrase, it is a “very narrow path”.

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