Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Boris Johnson loses control as MPs seize Brexit agenda

British prime minister's majority in Parliament disappears and 21 members of his Conservative Party vote against him

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a session in the House of Commons in London. British MPs voted 328 to 321 to take control of the parliamentary agenda to prevent a no-deal Brexit. EPA
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a session in the House of Commons in London. British MPs voted 328 to 321 to take control of the parliamentary agenda to prevent a no-deal Brexit. EPA

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a major defeat in Parliament on Tuesday night as rebellious MPs voted to seize control of the Brexit agenda.

The result prompted the embattled leader to say he would call for a new general election.

The 328 to 301 vote, made possible by 21 rebel Conservatives who turned their backs on Mr Johnson's pleas and face ejection from the party, cleared the way for his opponents to introduce a bill on Wednesday that would seek to prevent Britain from leaving the EU without a deal October 31.

It was a momentous day in Britain's Parliament as the legislature rose up to successfully challenge the power of the prime minister over vital Brexit policy.

If Mr Johnson enjoyed a brief honeymoon since taking power in July, it came to abrupt end on Tuesday when he faced his first vote — and a startling defeat — in Parliament.

There is still no clarity about how and when Britain will leave the EU as the tortuous Brexit process nears a climax more than three years after the original vote to leave.

A new election would set the stage for a battle over whether voters favour a "no-deal" Brexit, more negotiations, or even a new referendum on the entire question of leaving the EU.

The cross-party rebels are fighting to prevent a no-deal Brexit because of fears it would gravely damage the economy and plunge Britain into a prolonged recession while also leading to possible medicine and food shortages.

Tuesday's vote came hours after Mr Johnson suffered a defection from his party, costing him his working majority in Parliament.

Mr Johnson and his backers say these fears are overblown and that voters who backed Brexit are demanding action, not more talk.

Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg relaxes on the front bench during an emergency debate on a no-deal Brexit. AFP
Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg relaxes on the front bench during an emergency debate on a no-deal Brexit. AFP

On a day of high drama and acerbic debate in the House of Commons, MPs returned from their summer recess to confront Mr Johnson over his insistence that the UK leave the EU on October 31, even without a withdrawal agreement to cushion the economic blow. Many shouted, "Resign!"

A new poll would be Britain's third general election in four years.

It is not clear that Mr Johnson would immediately get the two-thirds majority in Parliament needed to call a new election because his opponents are wary he might postpone the election date until after Brexit has taken place, in effect ramming through a no-deal exit.

"I don't want an election but if MPs vote tomorrow to stop the negotiations and to compel another pointless delay of Brexit, potentially for years, then that will be the only way to resolve this," Mr Johnson said minutes after he lost the vote in Parliament.

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Johnson loses control: Media reaction

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Earlier on Tuesday, two other prominent Conservatives decided not to seek re-election rather than follow Mr Johnson's Brexit policy. Former Cabinet minister Justine Greening and former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt also said they would step down.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said he will not agree to a new election until legislation preventing a no-deal Brexit is in place.

"He isn't winning friends in Europe. He's losing friends at home. His is a government with no mandate, no morals and, as of today, no majority," Mr Corbyn said of Mr Johnson.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will only back a UK general election once Prime Minister Boris Johnson's bid to leave the EU without a deal is defeated. Reuters
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will only back a UK general election once Prime Minister Boris Johnson's bid to leave the EU without a deal is defeated. Reuters

Mr Johnson, who became prime minister in July, has tried to crack down on members of his Conservative Party who oppose his Brexit plans, giving them a warning they would be expelled from the party if they supported parliamentary efforts to block or delay the withdrawal.

His stance has infuriated many long-time, prominent party members.

Dominic Grieve, who was attorney general in former prime minister David Cameron's government, said the expulsion threats demonstrated Mr Johnson's "ruthlessness".

Ms Greening said she feared her beloved party was "morphing into Nigel Farage's Brexit Party," in a reference to the UK's foremost eurosceptic and the party he leads.

Former finance minister Philip Hammond warned of the "fight of a lifetime" if officials tried to prevent him from running in the next election.

Time to block a no-deal departure is running short.

Mr Johnson last week maneuvered to give his political opponents even less time to block a chaotic no-deal Brexit, getting Queen Elizabeth II's approval to suspend Parliament.

His outraged critics sued, and lawyers arguing the case at a court in Scotland completed submissions Tuesday. The judge could rule as soon as Wednesday. Two other major legal challenges to the suspension are pending.

A no-deal Brexit will sever decades of seamless trade with Europe's single market of 500 million people. Government documents leaked to the Daily Telegraph newspaper predicted disruptions to the supply of medicine, decreased availability of fresh food and even potential water shortages because of disruption to supplies of water-treatment chemicals.

Mr Johnson insists the potential threat of leaving without a deal must remain as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the EU.

Although the EU is Britain's biggest trading partner, a no-deal Brexit would also hurt Europe – a fact not lost on Brussels. Johnson's supporters said MPs were weakening the government's negotiating position with the EU.

"The one thing that has helped focus minds in the EU is that we're leaving come what may and we've got a very focused task of what a good deal would look like," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told broadcaster ITV.

"But the lingering doubt they've got is: Will the shenanigans in Parliament somehow lead to the cancellation or the delay of Brexit?

"That's encouraging them, and weakening our position to actually get the deal we all want."

Europe insists it will not renegotiate the agreement struck with former prime minister Theresa May, which Mr Johnson considers unacceptable.

Britain's former leader Theresa May leaves the Houses of Parliament in London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's defeat. Reuters
Britain's former leader Theresa May leaves the Houses of Parliament in London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's defeat. Reuters

Mr Johnson has told French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel he could come up with a better alternative to the main sticking point in the stalled negotiations – the deadlock about how to ensure there are no customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.

Only 58 days before the scheduled exit, the EU said it had received no proposals from the British government aimed at overcoming the impasse, undercutting Mr Johnson's claim that progress is being made.

European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said the EU's executive body, which supervises talks on behalf of Britain's 27 European partners, is operating on the "working assumption" that Britain will leave the bloc on October 31.

Any British request for an extension would have to be approved by each of the other 27 EU nations before it could be granted.

Updated: September 4, 2019 10:32 AM

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