The latest obstacle to Boris Johnson’s plans came in the form of yet another defeat in the House of Commons, where the once-swaggering prime minister has lost every key vote of his young premiership.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s dreams of an election that would clear his path to Brexit by the end of October were decisively dashed early Tuesday morning, leaving him with no obvious means of making good on his vow of a “do or die” exit from the European Union.
The latest obstacle to Johnson’s plans came in the form of yet another defeat in the House of Commons, where the once-swaggering prime minister has lost every key vote of his young premiership.
Tuesday was the second time in as many weeks that Johnson has asked for Parliament to allow a fresh election, only to be rebuffed by a unified opposition.
“Why are they conniving to delay Brexit?” Johnson taunted as a rowdy debate kicked off Monday night, with his fellow Tories cheering him on. “The only possible explanation is they fear we will win.”
Lawmakers began debating the issue hours after Speaker John Bercow surprised his colleagues by announcing he would step aside within weeks. The speaker has become a polarizing figure in a country divided sharply along Brexit lines.
With Parliament suspended for the next five weeks, Tuesday’s defeat leaves Johnson with virtually no chance of getting a fresh vote before Oct. 31, the deadline by which Britain is due to leave the European Union.
The prime minister had hoped an election could restore the majority he lost last week through a combination of defections and ejections, and give him a free hand to follow through on his promise to lead Britain out of the E.U. – even if there’s no deal with European leaders.
Instead, Johnson is now in a bind: He has insisted he will not ask the E.U. for an extension – he said last week he “would rather be dead in a ditch.” But a law passed by rebel lawmakers requires him to seek one if there’s still no deal by Oct. 19.
Hard line Brexiteers have suggested, and Johnson critics have warned, that the prime minister could defy the law. Johnson has refused to say whether he would comply. There is no modern precedent for a British leader willfully ignoring an act of Parliament. To do so would risk being held in contempt of court – and put in jail. Top ministers insist that will not happen.
Analysts say Johnson’s best hope may now be to strike a slightly improved deal with the E.U. European leaders, however, appear in no mood to give ground, and Johnson may struggle to get any agreement passed in Parliament even if they do.
The sudden narrowing of Johnson’s options represents a remarkable turn of events for a prime minister who, less than two weeks ago, appeared to control his own destiny – and the fate of Brexit.
As summer waned, he announced a plan to suspend Parliament for much of September and half of October, leaving lawmakers with little time – perhaps not enough, some theorized – to block his plans to lead Britain over the cliff of a no-deal Brexit if no agreement could be reached.
But the formerly fractious opposition quickly unified to disrupt his plans. When he offered an election two years after the last one – something opposition leaders had repeatedly demanded – they turned him down. Along the way, Johnson shed allies, including his own brother, who resigned from the cabinet.
A series of halting public performances added to the sense that Johnson, in office since late July, had already begun down the path of his two predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, who were both casualties of treacherous Brexit politics.
“It’s possible that every single defeat and every awkward speech and all the difficulties were part of some master plan to produce a future election victory,” said Tony Travers, a political scientist at the London School of Economics. “But if you stand back and look at what’s going on, they have, to a degree, lost control of events.”
Whether he can regain that control could hinge on his dealings with Europe in the coming weeks.
Earlier on Monday, Johnson had struck a notably conciliatory tone during a visit to Dublin – an indication, perhaps, that the prime minister knows his best hope for escaping his Brexit quagmire lies with his European counterparts, who are eager to avoid a chaotic British exit.
Standing beside Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, Johnson insisted again that Britain “will come out on October 31.” But he also cited a clear preference for a deal to manage the withdrawal, and argued there is still plenty of time to come to terms before E.U. leaders meet for a summit Oct. 17-18.
“There is a way forward,” he said. “If we really focus, I think we can make a huge amount of progress.”
He declined, however, to specify new proposals. And Varadkar maintained that he had not seen any.
The Irish leader also savaged a favorite Johnson talking point, insisting that a British exit without a deal would only lead to more rounds of negotiation – not to an end to Britain’s Brexit agony.
“There is no such thing as a clean break,” Varadkar said as Johnson grimaced.
A joint statement following the news conference and a subsequent hour of meetings said that “common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain.”
The question of how to handle the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain a member of the E.U., has bedeviled Britain’s Brexit plans from the start – and will be key to talks in the coming weeks.
Both the British and Irish governments say they don’t want a hard border, complete with checkpoints and barriers, dividing the island. But the Irish, and the E.U., have insisted on a “backstop” that would in effect keep Britain in the E.U.’s customs union until a solution can be found that allows for two different trading systems to exist side-by-side.
Johnson has rejected such an arrangement, arguing it would keep Britain from striking deals with other countries, such as the United States, and reaping the benefits of life outside the E.U.
If there are benefits to be had, they remain stubbornly elusive three years after a majority of Britons voted in a referendum to exit the E.U.
With the country still polarized along Brexit lines, polls show Johnson’s Conservatives with a significant lead over the opposition Labour Party. Whenever an election comes – analysts say November is now likely – the prime minister is expected to play on frustration among pro-Brexit voters who blame Corbyn and other opposition leaders for the country’s inability to get out.
But with multiple choices for both the pro- and anti-E.U. side on the ballot, any election is highly unpredictable.
Just how polarized Britain has become was evident Monday afternoon with the surprise announcement by the colorful and controversial speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, that he would leave his post by the end of October.
Known for his enthusiastic shouting of “order, order,” his loud ties and his soaring oratory, Bercow is a cult figure in the Brexit drama.
He is also as a stalwart defender of parliamentary power, one who used his traditionally low-key and nonpartisan role to ensure that lawmakers could effectively check executive power at a time when critics say Johnson is flouting important conventions of the British political system.
That stance was significant last week, with Bercow giving lawmakers the chance to block Johnson’s attempts to take Britain out of the E.U. without a deal.
Most lawmakers gave Bercow a standing ovation on Monday – a rare display on the House floor. But many hardline Brexiteers, who believe Bercow is biased toward the pro-E.U. camp and had vowed to try to defeat him in the next election, stayed seated.
In an emotional farewell address, with his wife looking on from the gallery, Bercow pleaded for an institution that is taking heavy abuse as frustration with Britain’s interminable E.U. exit builds – and is likely to take more.
“We degrade this Parliament at our peril,” he said.