Rebel with a cause plots ruin of Johnson's big Brexit day

LONDON (Reuters) - Fearing Britain could drop out of the European Union without a deal by design or default, one British lawmaker has threatened to deny Prime Minister Boris Johnson his day of Brexit glory by delaying a vote on a last-minute divorce deal.

British Conservative MP Oliver Letwin listens in the Parliament during a debate on alternatives to Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit Deal, in London, Britain April 3, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters TV via REUTERS

Oliver Letwin, 63, is a former cabinet minister with a reputation as an unofficial fixer, using his affable manner and procedural knowledge to head off awkward disagreements in parliament. Brexit has given him notoriety as a rebel with a cause: to stop a no-deal Brexit.

The first Saturday sitting of parliament for 37 years was supposed to frame the approval of Johnson’s EU divorce deal, but Letwin, expelled by Johnson from the Conservative Party, may have snared the prime minister in a legislative booby-trap.

In a move that indicates the level of suspected perfidy that runs through both sides of the Brexit schism, Letwin proposed a 26-word amendment that, he says, removes any chance of a no-deal Brexit by deferring a decision on Johnson’s deal.

The Letwin amendment potentially turns Johnson’s Brexit finale on its head by leaving the prime minister exposed to a humiliating obligation to ask the EU for a delay until the end of January 2020.

The tension between the two men was on display on the floor of parliament, a 19th-century gothic palace.

Fixing his eyes on Letwin, Johnson said: “This is a momentous occasion for our country and our parliament, and it would be a great shame if the opportunity to have a meaningful vote ... were to be taken away from us.”

Letwin, standing in the debating chamber clutching a sheaf of parliamentary papers, looked on impassively.

Lawmakers will vote on Letwin’s proposal later on Saturday. If approved, Johnson’s deal will not be voted upon, and he will be obliged by a law passed by his opponents to write to the EU to request a delay.


Letwin was one of 21 Conservatives expelled from the party in September for not supporting Johnson’s pledge to leave the EU on Oct. 31 with or without a deal, and he has focused his parliamentary acumen on preventing a no-deal Brexit.

Letwin said he supports Johnson’s deal but wants to close a loophole whereby hardline Brexit supporters could support the deal on Saturday but then block the legislation needed to implement it, leaving Britain on course for a disorderly exit at the end of the month.

“My aim is to ensure that Boris’s deal succeeds, but that we have an insurance policy which prevents the UK from crashing out on 31 October by mistake if something goes wrong during the passage of the implementing legislation,” Letwin said in a note explaining his proposal.

“Simple as that!”

Letwin says parliamentary approval for the deal, required in order to ratify it, should be withheld until the government has passed the legislation needed to implement the exit agreement.

The proposal is so dangerous for Johnson because it unites a diverse section of lawmakers who oppose Brexit altogether or want a second referendum with those who support leaving with a deal, but not without a deal - a coalition that looks likely to command majority support.

While the motivation of the amendment is fear of Brexit betrayal, the proposal has stoked a similar mistrust among supporters of Brexit who see a plot to sink it in a legislative quagmire.

“It’s a wrecking amendment, hiding behind the transparent veneer of opposing a no-deal outcome in the hope of giving the Remain Parliament an opportunity to force through a second referendum,” Conservative Brexit supporter Andrew Bridgen said.

Reporting by William James and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Janet Lawrence