LONDON (REUTERS) - The British parliament rejected Prime Minister Boris Johnson's attempt to fast-track a Brexit law through parliament, making a delay beyond the Oct 31 exit date almost inevitable, and casting the entire EU divorce into doubt.
After agreeing a last-minute Brexit deal with the EU last week, Johnson was trying to pass the domestic law needed to enact it.
The 110-page Withdrawal Agreement Bill would typically be scrutinised over weeks and months, but Johnson proposed condensing the timetable to just a few days.
That proposal was rejected by 322 votes to 308 on Tuesday.
The defeat leaves Johnson with no clear way to deliver his Brexit deal on time.
Losing the vote on the timetable does not kill the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, but does make its passage before Oct 31 highly unlikely.
On Saturday, parliament forced Johnson to send a letter - though he refused to sign it - to the EU requesting a three-month delay to Brexit. Nevertheless, he has made clear he does not want an extension. Speaking after the defeat, Johnson said he would pause the legislation while EU decides on the delay request.
The legislative process could be restarted if a new programme motion is agreed by parliament.
If the process resumes, the government will still have to see off attempts to amend the Bill, potentially changing the terms of Britain's withdrawal.
Lawmakers have proposed changes including adding in a requirement for a second referendum and forcing the government to seek a long-term customs union with the EU.
OVER TO EU
Johnson said: "The EU must now make up their minds over how to answer parliament's request for a delay.
"I will speak to EU member states about their intentions. Until they have reached a decision we will pause this legislation. Let me be clear, our policy remains that we should not delay," he said.
"The government must take the only responsible course and accelerate our preparations for a no-deal outcome," he said.
Johnson had earlier warned lawmakers that he would abandon the legislation if the EU decides to delay Brexit until Jan 31, 2020. He would then try to get parliament to agree to hold an early election.
However, he has not said he would ditch the Bill if the EU granted a shorter extension.
This leaves open the possibility that the EU agrees a short extension to allow parliament more time to scrutinise the Bill and Johnson proposes a new slightly longer timetable to lawmakers.
This would break Johnson's "do or die" pledge to leave the EU on Oct 31, but could still allow him to say in a subsequent election campaign that he had delivered Brexit.
If the EU does not grant Britain more time, the country will leave without a deal on Oct 31.