Boris Johnson’s strategy to wrench Britain out of the European Union by the end of next month was in shreds on Wednesday when lawmakers denied his demand for an early election and approved a rebel bill to block a no-deal Brexit.
In a third stinging defeat in two days, the House of Commons roundly dismissed the UK Prime Minister’s demand for an election. Hours earlier, they had voted to bind Johnson’s hands and prevent him from taking the UK out of the EU without a negotiated deal.
Rejecting the government’s demands for an election, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn compared it to “an offer of an apple to Snow White from the Wicked Queen… offering the poison of a no deal.”
Johnson claimed Corbyn was running scared. “I think he has become the first leader of the opposition in the democratic history of our country to refuse the invitation to an election,” he said. “The obvious conclusion, I’m afraid, is he does not think he will win.”
The Prime Minister, while publicly claiming not favor an election, had hoped a new vote would break the deadlock over Brexit by returning him to power with an increased majority. But the move suffered a heavy defeat in the House of Commons. The motion calling for the vote fell far short of the required 434 supermajority to pass.
The result doesn’t mean an election won’t happen, though. Corbyn said he would support an election once legislation that would prevent a no-deal Brexit – approved in defiance of Johnson earlier in the evening – was enacted. Parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords, was considering the bill in an all-night sitting that was expected to stretch into Thursday.
The government abandoned efforts to block the bill in the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK parliament, in the early hours of Thursday morning. To become law, the bill must be approved by Monday, when Johnson plans to suspend parliament for five weeks. That decision had already angered lawmakers, some of whom took the government to court in Scotland.
They argued that the suspension was a move to shut down debate over Brexit. But a judge at the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled on Wednesday that the suspension was lawful.
Miserable day for Johnson
Johnson endured a torrid session of Prime Minister’s Questions, the first of his premiership, when he was assailed by all sides. Many of Johnson’s own lawmakers were furious at his decision, essentially, to fire 21 Conservatives who defied the government and voted in favor of the no-deal Brexit bill.
Among the 21 were eight former Cabinet ministers, two former treasury secretaries and the grandson of Winston Churchill. One of those ejected from the party, former foreign office minister Alistair Burt, savaged Johnson in the House of Commons. “What are people going to think about what we have left and what we have lost?” he asked.
The Prime Minister ended his second day of parliamentary misery in a deeply weakened position – largely of his own making. Having inherited a working majority of two from his beleaguered predecessor Theresa May, Johnson’s tactics resulted in his government plunging to a parliamentary deficit of more than 40.
Divisions were not confined to Johnson’s side. The Labour party appeared split over when to accede to the government’s demand for an election – either when the no-deal bill completes becomes law, or when no-deal is finally off the table in practice, at the end of October.
Dismay in Brussels
In Brussels, diplomats looked on in dismay. “We are quite aware that we [the EU] are being used as the back drop for a Johnson election campaign,” one diplomat told CNN. “We are not optimistic at all that this is going to end well, and not sure the UK government has a plan, and that the UK government when it returns on the 15th [October] that it will be in a state where it wants to do a deal.”
Johnson has declared himself determined not to take the option of a no-deal Brexit off the table, arguing that the threat of a chaotic departure makes his negotiating position stronger. Opposition lawmakers believe his claim to be negotiating with the EU to be a sham.
The EU diplomat said it was pointless talking to Johnson because he currently cannot deliver a deal, the diplomat said. “They’re a minority government that is trying to deliver the hardest form of Brexit that it doesn’t have the votes for, which lets them run down a clock to a no-deal.”
Rob Picheta and Ivana Kottasová wrote from London. Nina dos Santos reported from Brussels.