Johnson Boxed In Over Brexit as Bill Is Pushed Through Lords
Boris Johnson was humiliated by Parliament for a second day running, with his do-or-die Brexit strategy derailed and even his plan for a general election rejected. But having bet everything on getting Britain out of the European Union by Oct. 31, he can’t back down.
The U.K. prime minister has lost all authority in the House of Commons and must find a way to win its support for an election so he can get a shot at commanding a majority. If he can’t, he will be trapped in office, compelled by law to request a further delay to Brexit.
Johnson will go over the heads of Parliament and appeal directly to voters in a speech on Thursday as he tries to seize back the initiative.
“It is clear the only action is to go back to the people and give them the opportunity to decide what they want,” his office said in a statement.
Johnson is the third Conservative leader to be undermined by the intractable task of delivering Brexit since the fateful 2016 referendum. Unlike his two predecessors, though, he was a key architect in persuading the British public to vote for it.
That decision was meant to settle the European question in British politics that had been lurking for decades. Instead, it’s torn the Tories apart and left a nation that was once the benchmark for stability and pragmatism on the cusp of a third election in just over four years. There’s also no guarantee it will break the deadlock that’s politically paralyzed a country of almost 70 million people.
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As European Union leaders monitored events, the chaos that has engulfed the U.K. establishment was brought to life in a charged House of Commons. Earlier in the day, the grandson of Winston Churchill was close to tears in an emotional farewell to his colleagues after getting thrown out of the party for siding against Johnson. He had been a Tory member of Parliament for 37 years.
And the mood only got worse as the hours wore on. In a dramatic series of evening votes on Wednesday, members of Parliament moved to stop Johnson forcing the U.K. out of the bloc without a deal next month, effectively wrecking his mission to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31.
The bill was then sent to the House of Lords and will return to the Commons by Friday evening after an earlier plan to get unelected peers to filibuster was dropped shortly before 1:30 a.m.
Parliament also rejected Johnson’s desperate appeal for a snap general election.
“You can’t negotiate with Boris Johnson,” said John McDonnell, one of the leading figures of the opposition Labour Party, adding that the prime minister has a “passing relationship with the truth.” Good will and trust in Parliament are in short supply, adding to the impasse.
Johnson, who exploited Parliament’s Brexit deadlock to depose Theresa May and become prime minister, has now found himself a victim of the same forces that destroyed her.
He was the face of the Leave campaign and has sold himself to his party as a tough negotiator who would force EU leaders to back down by threatening to take Britain out of the EU without a deal. Yet he has shown himself unable to get his way even in his own party.
After he threw 21 MPs who voted against him out of the Conservatives on Tuesday night, the rebels turned up on Wednesday and refused to sit on the opposition benches, staying in their old seats behind the prime minister in a show of defiance.
“It is completely impossible for government to function if the House of Commons refuses to pass anything that the government proposes,” the prime minister told a noisy parliament. “In my view and the view of the government, there must now be an election on Tuesday 15 October.”
His appeal didn’t work as Labour is divided. Some in the party argue it’s a chance to grab power, something that seemed an impossible idea only a few years ago. Others fear that Johnson would win a majority and be able to seek a no-deal Brexit. Timing -- before or after Oct. 31 -- is the key for them.
“We want an election because we look forward to turfing this government out,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “The offer of the election today is a bit like the offer of an apple to Snow White by the wicked queen -- because what he’s offering is not an apple or even an election, but the poison of no deal.”
Corbyn said he would back an election once the bill to stop a no-deal Brexit had become law. Johnson accused the Labour leader of being too scared of losing to fight a contest.
A person familiar with the matter said Johnson plans to keep pushing. And while Johnson is a talented campaigner -- as the 2016 surprise outcome proved -- going to the polls in the current, highly volatile climate is a huge gamble for the Conservatives.
Two years ago, May called a snap election expecting to win a landslide. Instead, she lost the majority she started with, a failure that resulted in the chaos and confusion that has defined British politics ever since.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.