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Oct. 19, 2019, 10:34 a.m. EDT

British Parliament votes to delay Brexit

Lawmakers voted 322-306 to withhold their approval on the Brexit deal

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By Steve Goldstein, MarketWatch , Associated Press


Associated Press
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a statement to lawmakers inside the House of Commons to update details of his new Brexit deal with EU, in London Saturday Oct. 19, 2019. At a rare weekend sitting of Parliament, Johnson implored legislators to ratify the Brexit deal he struck this week with the other 27 EU leaders. (House of Commons via AP)

U.K. lawmakers voted Saturday to postpone a decision on whether to back the Brexit deal that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiated with the European Union, throwing a wrench into government plans to leave the bloc at the end of this month.

At a special session of Parliament intended to ratify the Brexit deal, lawmakers voted 322-306 to withhold their approval on the Brexit deal until legislation to implement it has been passed.

The vote aims to ensure that the U.K. can’t crash out of the EU without a divorce deal on the scheduled Oct. 31 departure date. But it means Johnson he has to ask the EU to delay Britain’s departure, since Parliament previously passed a law compelling him to do that if a Brexit divorce deal had not been passed by Saturday.

The government still hopes it can pass the needed legislation by the end of the month so the U.K. can leave on time.

A defiant Johnson said after the vote that he was not “daunted or dismayed” by the result and would push ahead with plans to leave the EU. Johnson said he would not “negotiate” with the EU for a delay.

For its part, the European Union gave no indication it was in a hurry to grant an extension.

As lawmakers debated, tens of thousands of anti-Brexit demonstrators descended on London to march to Parliament Square, demanding a new referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU or remain. Protesters, many wearing blue berets emblazoned with yellow stars symbolizing the EU flag, poured out of subway trains and buses for the last-ditch protest effort. Read more on the protests

The amendment makes support for the deal conditional on the legislation to implement it being passed by Parliament, something that could take several days or weeks. It also gives lawmakers another chance to scrutinize — and possibly change— the Brexit departure terms while the legislation is passing through Parliament.

Johnson called any delay to Britain’s Brexit departure date “pointless, expensive and deeply corrosive of public trust.”

And he warned Saturday that the bloc’s approval could not be guaranteed.

“There is very little appetite among our friends in the EU for this business to be protracted by one extra day,” Johnson said. “They have had three and a half years of this debate.”

French President Emmanuel Macron made the same point a day earlier in Brussels.

“I want us to finish this off and speak about the future,” Macron said. “The Oct. 31 date must be respected. I don’t believe new delays should be granted.”

The EU’s budget commissioner, Guenther Oettinger, told Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper that if British lawmakers reject Johnson’s Brexit deal, the U.K. is likely to crash out of the bloc with no deal.

Britain could still leave the EU on Oct. 31, if Parliament approves the legislation — the Withdrawal Agreement Bill — in time. The government plans to introduce the bill early next week and could hold late-night sittings of Parliament in hope of getting it passed within days.

As lawmakers thundered on in their first Saturday sitting since the 1982 Falklands War, the streets of London turned into a sea of blue. Some demonstrators with bells strapped to their legs and wielding sticks performed a traditional morris dance and chanted: “Morris, not Boris!” to cheers from onlookers.

Johnson’s hopes of getting the deal through Parliament were dealt a blow when his Northern Ireland ally, the Democratic Unionist Party, said it would not back him. The party says Johnson’s Brexit package — which carves out special status for Northern Ireland to keep an open border with EU member Ireland — is bad for the region and weakens its bonds with the rest of the U.K.

The DUP on Saturday voted for the delay, and one of its MPs told the BBC it would vote against — rather than abstain — Johnson’s withdrawal agreement.

To make up for the votes of 10 DUP lawmakers, Johnson has tried to persuade members of the left-of-center Labour Party to support the deal. Late Friday the government promised to bolster protections for the environment and workers’ rights to allay Labour fears that the Conservative government plans to slash those protections after Brexit.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed those promises as inadequate.

“This deal is not good for jobs, damaging for industry and a threat to our environment and natural world,” he said. “Supporting the government this afternoon would merely fire the starting pistol in a race to the bottom in regulations and standards.”

The British pound /zigman2/quotes/210561263/realtime/sampled GBPUSD +0.0155%   traded at $1.2975 on Friday night, an indication financial markets expect the U.K. won’t leave the European Union without a deal.

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Steve Goldstein is MarketWatch markets editor for Europe. Follow him on Twitter: @MKTWgoldstein.

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