(Bloomberg) — Britain faces its third election in just over four years after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would rather risk losing office than have his negotiations with the European Union undermined.
In a dramatic ultimatum, Johnson will try to trigger a snap vote on Oct. 14 if he loses a crunch vote in Parliament on Tuesday evening.
It’s the culmination of a face-off between a combative new leader, who argues that threatening to walk away from talks with the EU gives him leverage, and a majority of members of parliament convinced that Britain crashing out of the bloc without any agreements would cause vast economic harm.
More than three years after the referendum, Britain is still tearing itself apart over Brexit, an all-consuming quest that has poisoned the political climate, confused and alienated voters, tested relations with once-close European allies.
The stakes keep getting higher and the process ever more murky.
The MPs who oppose a no-deal Brexit — including senior members of his own Conservative Party — will try to seize control of parliamentary business on Tuesday with the aim of passing legislation that would force Johnson to delay Brexit in the event of no deal.
Johnson told an emergency Cabinet meeting on Monday that if the rebels win, he’ll respond by seeking a vote the next day to hold a general election.
“I want everybody to know there are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay,” he said in a hastily arranged statement outside his office. “Let’s let our negotiators get on with their work.”
The menace reflects both Johnson’s do-or-die approach to getting Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31. This is also not his first attempt to stop Parliament from tying his hands.
Last week he asked the Queen to stop Parliament from meeting for a month. That galvanized his opponents, who realized they had little time to act, so over the weekend the government warned potential Tory rebels that they’d be expelled if they voted against Johnson. That too seems to have failed, as several Tory rebels announced they were unmoved by the threat.
The political turmoil and uncertainty over Brexit has hit the pound in recent weeks, and sterling was down 0.8% on Monday.
It’s not clear whether Johnson will be able to follow his words with actions. To get an election, he needs two-thirds of MPs to vote for one — 434 of them. He has only 311 — even fewer if he starts throwing out Tories.
What Labour Wants
In theory, making up the difference should be straightforward: The opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been asking for an election since he lost the last one narrowly. His close ally, John McDonnell, has repeatedly said “bring it on” in the past week. But many Labour MPs are ambivalent about it.
One Tory rebel privately pointed out that it was impossible to specify an election date in the vote, and questioned whether Johnson could be trusted not to try to schedule the vote for after Britain has left the EU.
A person close to the rebels, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed out that Johnson was attacking Tories for voting against the government, when he did the same thing twice this year. The sense was that Johnson was doing everything he could to bring about an election.
If the election did go ahead, Johnson would fight it arguing that he should be given a mandate to deliver Brexit, that he could take to the EU council on Oct. 17. Polls currently put the Conservative Party ahead, and Johnson is an accomplished campaigner and the most famous politician in the country.
But uncertain factors include the rise of the Brexit Party, which might siphon off Tory votes, and the departure of Conservative votes in urban areas to anti-Brexit parties. Tory seats in Scotland would also be at risk. And if Johnson lost, he would become the shortest-serving prime minister in British history.
The rebel bill, published Monday night, would require Johnson to extend exit day to Jan. 31 if by Oct., 19 he hasn’t either reached a deal with the EU that’s approved by Parliament or secured Parliament’s agreement for leaving the bloc with no deal. It’s drafted to limit Johnson’s options.
The prime minister, however, was adamant that he wouldn’t be constrained. “We’re leaving on 31 October, no ifs or buts,” he said.
–With assistance from Kitty Donaldson, Alex Morales and Jessica Shankleman.
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