Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE
Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE

London  — Britain’s departure from the European Union was thrown into chaos on Tuesday after parliament rejected Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s swift timetable to ratify his exit deal, prompting him to halt the legislation while he awaits word from Brussels.

As the clock ticks down to the latest October 31 deadline for Britain’s departure, Brexit is hanging in the balance as a divided parliament debates when, how and even whether it should happen.

In a rare victory, MPs voted 329 to 299 in favour of Johnson’s Brexit deal at an important second reading, which would open the agreement up to debate and possible amendment. It was the first time parliament has signalled support for a deal on how Britain would leave the EU, although still at an early stage in the legislative process.

But minutes later they voted 322 to 308 against a motion which set out a three-day schedule to rush the legislation through the House of Commons, which the government says is necessary to achieve Brexit on time.

“I must express my disappointment that the House has yet again voted for delay,” Johnson told parliament.

The next step, he said, would be waiting for the EU to respond to a request to delay the October 31 Brexit date, which Johnson reluctantly sent to Brussels on Saturday after being forced to do so by MPs.

“The EU must now make up their minds over how to answer parliament’s request for a delay,” he said. “The government must take the only responsible course and accelerate our preparations for a no-deal outcome.”

Johnson was forced by opponents into the humiliation of asking the EU for the delay after vowing he would never seek one, but had still hoped to make the request unnecessary by passing the Brexit law fast enough to leave on time.

The EU has yet to respond to the request for an extension.

European Council president Donald Tusk said he is taking the request for a delay seriously.

“I will speak to EU member states about their intentions, until they have reached a decision we will pause this legislation,” Johnson said. “Let me be clear, our policy remains that we should not delay.”

Ahead of the vote, Johnson had warned parliament that if it defeated him on the timetable and forced a delay until January then he would abandon his attempt to ratify the deal and push for an election instead under the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.

Reuters