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U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson began moves to trigger a snap general election after suffering a humiliating defeat for his Brexit strategy that left his ruling party in tatters.
A fresh poll to choose a new government would mark the climax of the political chaos that has engulfed Britain for the past three years since the country voted narrowly to leave the European Union in a referendum in 2016.
That Brexit vote ended the premiership of David Cameron and the failure to deliver on it saw his successor, Theresa May, forced out in July. Now after only six weeks in the top job, Johnson himself is staring into the abyss, with Brexit divisions shredding his Conservative administration.
On Tuesday, he lost his ruling majority when one of his own Tory MPs defected to join the Liberal Democrats. Six hours later, Johnson’s first test in a Commons vote ended in a heavy and damaging defeat. He retaliated by firing rebels from his party.
Members of the House of Commons voted 328 to 301 to take a crucial first step toward forcing the prime minister to delay Brexit by three months in an effort to stop a no-deal split. It’s a delay he has repeatedly rejected under all circumstances.
In all, 21 Conservatives defied Johnson and voted against him, effectively sacrificing their careers in politics as his officials immediately began expelling the rebels from the party for failing to obey the premier’s orders. Rebels punished in this way included former Chancellor Philip Hammond.
Johnson warned his enemies that if they do not back down on Wednesday, he will go further and try to break up Parliament to trigger a general election.
But that too could backfire: He needs the support of the opposition Labour Party for an election, and he may not get it. What happens now depends on events in Parliament in the hours ahead.
On Wednesday, Johnson’s opponents will seize control of the Commons agenda and put forward their own draft law that would force him to delay Brexit until Jan. 31. They are trying to stop him from carrying out his threat to take Britain out of the EU without a divorce agreement if necessary on Oct. 31, fearing that a no-deal split would be economically disastrous.
Johnson says his critics are “on the brink of wrecking any deal that we might be able to strike.”
If the Commons votes to pass the Brexit delay law, there will be no choice but to go to the voters in the country and ask them to choose a new government to negotiate with the EU at a key summit next month, Johnson said.
“I don’t want an election, the public don’t want an election,” he told Parliament on Tuesday. “But if the House votes for this Bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 to sort this out.”
To get an election, Johnson needs two-thirds of all MPs — 434 of them — to vote with him for a poll. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn told the prime minister he could have the election if he first let the rebel bill pass into law. That’s a deal that Johnson might well take: If he wins a majority in the election, he will be able to repeal the law.
The pound see-sawed through the day Tuesday as it became clear Johnson’s attempt to scare Conservatives into submission and to stop Parliament from giving him instructions had backfired.
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Johnson insists he needs to keep the option of a no-deal divorce on the table as leverage during negotiations. But European officials say the U.K. has brought no credible ideas to the table and they worry that Johnson has an eye on the election and wants to scapegoat the EU.
Tuesday evening saw emotional moments, as the rebels prepared to cast what they knew would be their final votes as Conservative MPs. Former minister Stephen Hammond shook hands with a colleague who wasn’t rebelling before setting off to defy his leader. As the evening closed, Conservative Party whips were calling the 21 rebels and telling them they were no longer Tory MPs.
Johnson, who started the day with 311 MPs and a majority of one, finished it with 289, very much the leader of a minority government. Even if there isn’t a vote for an election this week, with numbers like this, a poll will have to come soon.
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