Written by Benjamin Mueller
For the ever-wary lawmakers who sit behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Britain’s House of Commons, one insurance policy on his rollicking leadership was not enough. So on Saturday, they took out another.
So distrustful have lawmakers become of their famously brazen prime minister — and of one another — that they voted Saturday not to vote at all on Johnson’s much-heralded Brexit plan.
They had already passed a law to prevent the prime minister from abruptly pulling Britain out of the European Union without a deal managing future relations. But Saturday they went further, saying that even the deal that Johnson had struck with the EU was not a strong enough guarantee that Britain would not leave without one.
So they bought themselves a second layer of protection against such an outcome, forcing the government to ask for an extension and putting off the fateful decision on his deal until a no-deal departure was a more remote possibility.
Brexit deal: What has happened so far, and what happens now
In an era of fractious disagreements and high-stakes political gridlock in Britain, the decision to add extra insurance was more evidence of the hollowing out of confidence among lawmakers that their colleagues would abide by the courtly traditions and codes of conduct that once dominated the chamber.
“The arteries of Parliament are built on this sort of trust,” said Alan Wager, a research associate at The U.K. in a Changing Europe, a research institute.
“It’s founded on the good-chap theory of government, the idea that people will abide by norms and culture, and that’s where the breakdown is,” he said. “The fury and frustration in the House of Commons is because of the magnitude of the decisions and the tightness of the votes.”
Lawmakers said they had good reason to distrust Johnson.
In an effort to quash dissenting voices in Parliament and push his Brexit plan through, Johnson had already asked Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament, a move the Supreme Court deemed unlawful. And in striking a deal this past week with the EU on the terms of Britain’s departure, he broke a major promise of his about how he would treat trade in Northern Ireland.
As a result of their misgivings, lawmakers have repeatedly tied the government’s hands, going so far as to prewrite a letter to the EU for the prime minister because they did not trust him to follow the chamber’s edicts. A pregnant Labour lawmaker even delayed giving birth to appear for a pivotal vote in a wheelchair, suspicious that her pro-Brexit adversaries would not honor the usual system of taking medical absences into account.
The delay to Saturday’s vote on Johnson’s new Brexit agreement came in the form of an amendment put forward by Oliver Letwin, a former Conservative lawmaker exiled from the party by Johnson. Letwin supported the deal, as did some other lawmakers who voted to force a postponement.
But Letwin and other lawmakers said they worried that it was a prelude to parliamentary chicanery by Johnson or his hard-line Conservative allies that would result in a catastrophic no-deal Brexit within weeks. His amendment delays final approval of the agreement until after Parliament passes the detailed legislation to enact it.
That guarded against British lawmakers’ approving Johnson’s deal in principle Saturday, but then holding up the detailed legislation that would follow.
Despite the earlier law seeking to avert a no-deal departure, that sequence of events would have left Parliament powerless to stop a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31.
Among the most important backers of delaying a decision were a group of lawmakers furious at Johnson over the deal. In order to avoid imposing a border on the island of Ireland, his agreement creates a regulatory and customs border of sorts between Britain and Northern Ireland.
That angered unionist lawmakers for whom close ties between those two regions are sacrosanct — all the more so because Johnson had earlier promised not to put any distance between the two.
Philip Hammond, a Conservative ex-chancellor, on Saturday compared Johnson’s deal to getting on a bus without knowing where it was going.
“Before I decide whether to jump on the prime minister’s bus,” he said, “I’d like to be just a little clearer about the destination.”
For a prime minister who thought he was on the verge of a breakthrough, the voting Saturday amounted to a remarkable comedown. But some of the anger at the prime minister was fueled by the very tactics that his allies credit for getting him a new deal.
In the delicate last stage of trying to win approval, though, Johnson is finding that those fights have depleted a precious reserve of goodwill among his colleagues, analysts said.
“It rebounds on him,” Wager said. “He got the agreement because he was willing to break the rules. And now people’s knowledge of the rules is coming back to haunt him.”
He added, “The attempts to second-guess the intentions of the government and safeguard against specific actions of the government — this is a new element, and it’s because of a lack of trust.”