Johnson calls opponents cowardly, plans new election bid
Johnson suffered another setback as his own brother quit the government on Thursday, saying it was not serving the national interest
LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson kept up his push for an early election as a way to break Britain’s Brexit impasse, as lawmakers moved to stop the U.K. leaving the European Union next month without a divorce deal.
Johnson suffered another setback as his own brother quit the government on Thursday, saying it was not serving the national interest.
Johnson remained determined to secure an election, after lawmakers on Wednesday rejected his attempt to trigger a snap poll. House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told Parliament that a vote would be held Monday on a new motion calling for an election.
Johnson’s office said the prime minister would appeal directly to the public, arguing in a speech later that politicians must “go back to the people and give them the opportunity to decide what they want.”
He called Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to endorse an election a “cowardly insult to democracy.”
Johnson’s determination to lead Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31, come hell or high water, is facing strong opposition from lawmakers, including members of his own Conservative Party who oppose a no-deal Brexit.
In a personal blow, the prime minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, quit the government, saying he could no longer endure the conflict “between family loyalty and the national interest.”
Jo Johnson had served as an education minister in his older brother’s government, despite his opposition to leaving the EU without a divorce deal. He said Thursday that he would also step down from Parliament, the latest in a string of resignations by Conservative moderates opposed to the government’s hard-Brexit stance.
Boris Johnson became prime minister in July after promising Conservatives that he would complete Brexit and break the impasse that has paralyzed the country’s politics since voters decided in June 2016 to leave the bloc, and which brought down his predecessor, Theresa May.
But after just six weeks in office, his plans to lead the U.K. out of the EU are in crisis. He is caught between the EU, which refuses to renegotiate the deal it struck with May, and a majority of British lawmakers opposed to leaving without an agreement. Most economists say a no-deal Brexit would cause severe economic disruption and plunge the U.K. into recession.
Johnson’s solution is to seek an election that could shake up Parliament and produce a less troublesome crop of lawmakers. It is a risky gambit: Opinion polls don’t point to a clear majority for the Conservatives and the public mood is volatile.
On Wednesday, the prime minister asked Parliament to back an Oct. 15 election, after lawmakers moved to block his plan to leave the EU on Oct. 31, even if there is no withdrawal agreement to pave the way.
But Parliament turned down his motion. Johnson needed the support of two-thirds of the 650 lawmakers in the House of Commons to trigger an election – a total of 434 – but got just 298, with 56 voting no and the rest abstaining.
British prime ministers used to be able to call elections at will, but under 2011 legislation fixing elections at five-rear intervals, they now need the support of lawmakers to hold an early poll.
Corbyn said Labour, the biggest opposition party, would only vote for an early election if the prospect of a no-deal Brexit was taken off the table.
Labour economy spokesman John McDonnell said the party wanted an election but was still deciding on whether to seek one before the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, or to wait until Parliament had secured a delay to Britain’s departure from the bloc.
“The problem that we have got is that we cannot at the moment have any confidence in Boris Johnson abiding by any commitment or deal that we could construct,” he told the BBC.
“That’s the truth of it. So, we are now consulting about whether it’s better to go long, therefore, rather than to go short.”
Opposition lawmakers, supported by rebels in Johnson’s Conservative Party, are attempting to pass a bill that would block a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, compelling the prime minister to seek a three-month delay to Britain’s departure if no exit deal has been agreed by late October.
The bill was approved by the House of Commons on Wednesday, but faced trouble in Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, where pro-Brexit members planned to defeat it by filibustering – talking until time ran out.
But early Thursday, the Lords agreed to let the bill to pass through the chamber by Friday, allowing it to become law on Monday. Johnson plans to suspend Parliament at some point next week until Oct. 14.
Johnson also faces several legal challenges to his push to leave the EU come what may.
On Thursday, transparency campaigner Gina Miller, who won a ruling in the Supreme Court in 2017 that stopped the government from triggering the countdown to Brexit without a vote in Parliament, was bringing a challenge at the High Court to Johnson’s plan to suspend Parliament.
Miller, who is supported in her claim by Labour and the governments of Scotland and Wales, argues that sending lawmakers home at a crucial time for Britain is unlawful.
“We say that what the prime minister is not entitled to do is to close Parliament for five weeks at such a critical time without justification,” her lawyer, David Pannick, told the hearing.