U.K. Lawmakers Batter Johnson Again, Defying Him on Brexit and Election
LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson was battered again on Wednesday as lawmakers from his own party and the opposition pressed ahead to stop his plan for leaving the European Union without an agreement — and then turned down his call for an election.
By the end of another tumultuous day in Parliament, Mr. Johnson’s government had been shredded by no fewer than three defeats.
After opposition and rebel Tory lawmakers seized control of the Brexit process from Mr. Johnson on Tuesday, they doubled down on Wednesday by advancing a bill to block a withdrawal from the European Union without a deal. Then, just hours later, they rejected Mr. Johnson’s request for a snap election, at least until their no-deal Brexit measure becomes the law of the land.
Mr. Johnson’s bid for a quick election drew 298 votes in favor, falling well short of the two-thirds needed. Many analysts believe that Mr. Johnson could still get his election soon, but the latest rebuff was a stark indication that he had lost control of Parliament.
It was a sobering day for Mr. Johnson, a politician whose bombast and supreme self-confidence finally met a wall of opposition amid a fierce backlash over his decisions to suspend Parliament for five weeks and to expel 21 lawmakers who rebelled against him on Tuesday. And with the purge, he may have fractured his Conservative Party.
At the prime minister’s question session on Wednesday, former colleagues launched a barrage of barbs at Mr. Johnson. An opposition lawmaker won sustained applause when he accused the prime minister of voicing racist sentiments in an article he wrote last year.
Then members of parliament pressed ahead with a measure designed to prevent him from taking Britain out of the European Union on Oct 31 without a deal.
Mr. Johnson lost two votes on that bill as it cleared the House of Commons. It then moved to the House of Lords, where Brexit supporters sought to stall the measure with a filibuster. Members of the unelected House of Lords brought food, drinks and bedding to Westminster in preparation for a session that could run not just through Wednesday night but through Thursday, too.
Mr. Johnson insists that, while he wants an agreement with the European Union, he needs a no-deal option as a negotiating lever.
The European Commission seems to view a no-deal Brexit with trepidation, saying on Wednesday that it wanted to make available 780 million euros, about $860 million — normally used for natural disasters and the effects of globalization — to member states that would suffer financially from Britain’s abrupt departure.
Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour leader, has said for two years that he wants an election, but is now preparing to block one.CreditHenry Nicholls/Reuters
In a document updated on Wednesday, it set out additional urgent measures that it proposes to mitigate a no-deal Brexit, signaling that Brussels considers that scenario to be likely despite the political gyrations in London.
Wednesday’s events unfolded against a developing consensus among Mr. Johnson’s opponents that he may have overplayed his hand through hardball tactics, devised by his adviser Dominic Cummings, a leading strategist in the main pro-Brexit campaign during the 2016 referendum.
From suspending Parliament for five weeks to kicking out rebel Tories for voting against the government, Mr. Johnson has united disparate elements in the opposition and his own party against him.
Another product of his take-no-prisoners approach has been an erosion of trust. While Mr. Johnson needed the Labour Party’s votes to call an election, its leaders are deeply suspicious of his motives.
The prime minister has said an election would take place on Oct. 15, but opponents worry that he will invent an excuse to move the date closer to the Oct. 31 deadline for leaving the European Union — or even after that — at the very least leaving no time for legislating after the balloting.
Determined not to “walk into a trap,” as the Labour spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, said on Wednesday, the party is refusing to back Mr. Johnson’s call for an election until legislation ruling out a no-deal Brexit becomes law.
Mr. Starmer said Labour would not vote for an election on a promise from Mr. Johnson “that it will be 15 October — which we don’t believe.”
For Mr. Johnson’s opponents, the question is whether to allow an election to take place in October or to delay it into November, once the current Brexit deadline has been put back beyond Oct. 31.
Many Labour lawmakers favor November, fearing that if Mr. Johnson were to win an October election with a clear majority, he could reverse any law they make this week preventing a no-deal Brexit, and pull Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 without an agreement.
Other opposition politicians are willing to take that risk, including Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, who wrote on Twitter that she would support an election once the new legislation was in place.
Her support could be important if, later this week, Mr. Johnson tries to force through an October general election with legislation to set aside the requirement for a two-thirds majority. Under that maneuver, he would require only a simple majority.
However the wrangling in Parliament comes out in the coming days, most analysts believe that an election is inevitable in the near future after years of stalemate over Brexit, and is probably the only way to break the cycle of endless and fruitless debate.
The latest crisis was precipitated by Mr. Johnson’s decision last week to suspend the sittings of Parliament in September and October, a move that prompted claims that he was subverting the conventions of Britain’s unwritten constitution. It also provoked legal challenges, and on Wednesday a judge in Scotland ruled against a challenge seeking to invalidate Mr. Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks.
His initial decision galvanized his critics in the Conservative Party who believed that Mr. Johnson’s intention was to unite Brexit supporters behind him ahead of an election, rather than to negotiate a new exit deal with the European Union.
The rebellion, and the purge of those Conservative members of Parliament, was the culmination of Downing Street’s unusually aggressive tactics. Some of the party’s best-known and most respected lawmakers were ejected from their political home, in some cases after decades of service.
Those disciplined include two former chancellors of the Exchequer: Philip Hammond, who left the post only a few weeks ago; and Kenneth Clarke, the longest-serving lawmaker in Parliament.
Out, too, went Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill and the grandest and most colorful of the Tory grandees. His voice close to cracking, Mr. Soames announced that he would not run again in the next election after almost 37 years in Parliament.
“I am truly very sad that it should end in this way,” Mr. Soames said.
Another victim was Rory Stewart, the maverick former cabinet minister who enlivened the Conservative leadership contest that was finally won by Mr. Johnson in July.
“It came by text, and it was a pretty astonishing moment,” Mr. Stewart said of his expulsion. “Remember that only a few weeks ago I was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party against Boris Johnson and I was in the cabinet.”
“It feels a little like something that one associates with other countries: One opposes the leader, and one loses the leadership — no longer in the cabinet and now apparently thrown out of the party and apparently out of one’s seat, too,” Mr. Stewart told the BBC.
Michael Howard, a former party leader loyal to Mr. Johnson, defended the purge and told the BBC that in a general election, any Conservative candidate for the party should support the leadership’s hard line on Brexit, suggesting that the party is determined to scoop up voters from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
“Everyone has to know with total clarity that if they vote Conservative and a Conservative government is elected, we will leave the E.U.,” Mr. Howard said.
But the immediate effect for the Conservatives has been traumatic, and has reduced the government’s working majority in Parliament to minus-43 from one.
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