A PM intent on giving up on Parliament?

Boris Johnson Image copyright Jessica Taylor

I haven't said it for a while, but I have written it here a lot - in these strange political times, two apparently contradictory things can both be true.

I know that doesn't always fit with the tone of politics in 2019, but it is the case and it is still a central fact.

Frankly, if the world really was black or white, yes or no, up or down, we wouldn't be in the kind of tangle that Westminster is in right now.

But it is true that on Tuesday night Boris Johnson suffered an important defeat.

His timetable for pushing his Brexit deal through Parliament was rejected by MPs - by some who want to stop us leaving the EU, but by others who objected strongly to No 10 trying to ram such important law through at pace.

For the prime minister - not that he would like to admit it - it is almost now impossible, even for an optimist like him, to imagine there is any remote possibility he will be able to stick to his Halloween deadline for Brexit to actually happen.

(There is one scenario where he could - if the EU turns down an extension - but that seems even less likely than Boris Johnson deciding he wants a quiet life, now the European Council President Donald Tusk said he would recommend another delay, even though we don't know on what terms).

Political promises matter, especially one that was made repeatedly in such dramatic terms.

'One way or another'

It is also true, however, that the prime minister achieved an important win tonight.

For the first time in this long process, the government has shown there is a version of Brexit that Parliament might potentially pass.

MPs only approved the second reading - that means the changes to the law that would take us out have gone through a threshold, but are a long way from the destination.

But perhaps the most important thing that was said in the Commons tonight was the prime minister's claim that "one way or another, we will leave the EU with this deal".

There are Conservative MPs who hope that Boris Johnson might plead with the EU only to grant a short delay - to wear an extension of a couple of weeks to get the rest of the legislation through.

Some ministers also want the government to take that position to see what the EU says over the next couple of days - what length of delay do they agree? Could it be just a sliver of extra time so the government can finish off the match?

But as things stand, Boris Johnson's team are not willing to take that approach.

They fear any delay could ensnare them in weeks, and then potentially months, of argument and further delay.

One senior figure told me: "We are just not going to get anything through this Parliament… we have to go to the country."

A Downing Street source said "Parliament blew its last chance" and warned - as Boris Johnson did at the despatch box - that if the EU agrees the delay as requested, they will try to push for an election as soon as they can.

No certainty

Remember, there is nothing automatic about that happening - a move for an election must be approved by MPs.

But having failed to get his desired Brexit timetable through Parliament, and having almost inevitably broken his promise to take us out of the EU whatever happened this month, the prime minister seems intent on giving up on Parliament, and asking the country what's next instead.

He's exchanging one battle for another with, again, no certainty that he will come out on top.

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