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The Brexit crisis spiraled deeper into chaos Wednesday, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered an embarrassing defeat over his “do or die” plan to yank Britain out of the EU next month. With politicians facing the prospect of marathon debates over a bid to block a no-deal Brexit, and over Johnson’s call for snap elections, one lawmaker showed up to Parliament with his duvet and shaving kit.
In raucous scenes Tuesday night that left Johnson humiliated, 21 members of his party voted to defy his Brexit strategy, while another lawmaker defected to an opposition party. In response, Johnson kicked the rebels — which included several former Cabinet ministers and Winston Churchill’s grandson — out of his Conservative party, extinguishing his government’s parliamentary majority less than two months before the country is scheduled to leave the EU.
Now Johnson’s “Plan B” is likely to be thwarted too. After his bruising defeat, Johnson made good on his threat to seek a general election, tabling a motion calling for a vote on Oct. 15, which he hopes will give him a mandate to press ahead with his kamikaze Brexit.
But for an election to be held, the motion needs the support of two-thirds of the MPs — and the opposition Labour Party, despite having called for an election for months, says it won’t vote for an election until legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit is passed.
“We’re not going to dance to his tune,” Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, said Wednesday. “Having got control from Boris Johnson last night, we are not going to hand it back to him in what is very obviously a trap.”
Labour fears that it could lose a general election, and that Johnson would then claim a Conservative victory as justification to storm ahead with his “do or die” plan to leave the EU on Oct. 31.
The political bloodsports are set to continue Wednesday, with Parliament scheduled to vote on both the rebels’ bill to block a no deal Brexit, and on Johnson’s call for early elections. Oh, and that all has to happen before Parliament is suspended next week: last week, Johnson made the extraordinary move to cut short the parliamentary session, in a bid to sidestep opposition to his Brexit plan.
What the hell happened last night?
In a dramatic return after Parliament’s summer recess, rebel MPs from the ruling Conservative party teamed up with opposition lawmakers to push for legislation to try to rule out a no deal Brexit on Oct. 31.
The bill, tabled by Labour MP Hilary Benn, would compel Johnson to ask the European Union for a deadline extension if no EU withdrawal deal has been approved by Parliament by Oct. 19. It’s a direct challenge to Johnson’s declaration that Britain will leave the bloc on Oct. 31 with or without a deal; he insists that leaving the possibility of no deal on the table will help his efforts to secure a better deal from the EU.
Johnson eventually lost Tuesday’s procedural vote on whether Benn’s bill can be debated by 328 votes to 301, amid some spectacular parliamentary theatrics.
The voluble Speaker of the House, John Bercow — known worldwide for his distinctive, bellowed articulations of points of order — scolded senior Conservative lawmaker Michael Gove by telling him not to “gesticulate” or “rant,” and saying he wouldn’t behave in the same way when picking his children up at the school gate.
“Spare us the theatrics. Behave yourself. Be a good boy, young man, be a good boy!” he brayed.
Meanwhile, Conservative MP and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg — an arch-Brexiteer whose aloof, aristocratic demeanor has come to symbolize to many the political elite’s disdain for the public — was heavily criticized for his body language, reclining across a parliamentary bench as the debate raged.
"He's spread across three seats, laying out as if it’s something very boring for him to listen to,” thundered Green MP Caroline Lucas, as Rees-Mogg looked bemused and refused to budge. A wave of furious online criticism followed.
“Jacob Rees-Mogg lolling horizontally on the front bench during tonight’s emergency debate is as insolent and insufferable as anything I’ve seen,” tweeted actor Hugh Laurie, while Labour MP Anna Turley called his posture the “physical embodiment of arrogance, entitlement, disrespect and contempt for our parliament.”
Actor Hugh Grant, who last week railed against Johnson as an “over-promoted rubber bath toy,” once again let loose, tweeting a picture of a slouching Rees-Mogg with the caption: “The man who put the C in Junta.” He later deleted the tweet.
One of the rebel MPs, Guto Bebb, said Wednesday that Rees-Mogg’s arrogant responses to Conservative MPs' concerns had been a key factor in persuading four MPs to join Tuesday’s mutiny.
“He was deemed to be arrogant, out of touch, and I think the way in which he treated some of the interventions was a red rag to a bull,” he said.
What’s happened to the rebels?
The 21 rebels who defied Johnson have, in British parliamentary-speak, “had the whip withdrawn.” This essentially means they’ve been kicked out of the party without losing their seat. An MP who has the whip withdrawn sits as an independent but can be brought back into the party fold if it decides to restore the whip.
The list of dumped rebels included senior establishment figures such as Philip Hammond, who just months ago was the chancellor in Theresa May’s Cabinet, and Winston Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames, highlighting the new Johnson administration’s sharp lurch to the Brexiteer right.
Rebel MP Rory Stewart, who lost to Johnson in the recent leadership race to replace May, told the BBC Wednesday he had been informed of his dumping by text message.
“It was a pretty astonishing moment,” he said. “Remember, only a few weeks ago I was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party against Boris Johnson and I was in the Cabinet. And it has all gone very quickly.”
Like others, he expressed a sense of disbelief that his party was behaving in such a way.
"It feels a little bit like something you associate with other countries — one opposes the leader, one loses the leadership race, no longer in the cabinet and now apparently thrown out of the party."
Veteran MP Ken Clarke, who was also kicked out, said he no longer recognized the Conservative party, saying it had become “the Brexit party, rebadged” with a “cabinet which is the most right-wing cabinet any Conservative party has ever produced.”
“The prime minister comes and talks total rubbish to us, and is planning to hold a quick election and get out, blaming parliament and Europe for the shambles,” he said.
So, now what?
The pound plummeted to its lowest level in 34 years Tuesday, fears of a recession continue to mount, and numerous legal challenges to Johnson’s strategy rumble on.
While Johnson was handed a serious defeat Tuesday, the rebels haven’t prevailed yet. The path forward for the country remains as murky as ever, with no clearer indication on when the UK will leave the EU, if at all.
Because of Johnson’s incendiary move last week to have Parliament suspended for five weeks starting next week, lawmakers have only a small window to get their bill blocking no deal Brexit passed.
After it passes its readings in the House of Commons, the British Parliament’s lower house, the bill would need to pass through Britain’s House of Lords and gain Royal Assent before it becomes law, setting the stage for marathon debating sessions as opponents try to derail the legislation.
Dick Newby, the Liberal Democrats’ leader in the House of Lords, tweeted a picture of himself arriving at Parliament Wednesday with a duvet, change of clothes and shaving kit in anticipation of a potential all-night sitting. "Could take us a while to see off 86 wrecking amendments on timetable motion today/tomorrow," he wrote.
On Wednesday, A Scottish judge rejected an attempt by a cross-party group of lawmakers to block Johnson’s move to suspend parliament, saying the case was essentially a political matter for politicians to settle. Joanna Cherry, a Scottish National Party lawmaker behind the bid, said she believed the judge had erred and the group would seek to file an appeal immediately.
Meanwhile, a defiant Johnson has cast the rebels’ bill as a “surrender” to the EU that would undermine his attempts to negotiate a better deal with the bloc. “Parliament is on the brink of wrecking any deal we might be able to strike in Brussels,” he warned, arguing the rebels’ bill would “mean more dither, more delay, more confusion.” That might be about the only thing he’s gotten right so far.
Cover: Prime Minister's Questions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday September 4, 2019. See PA story POLITICS PMQs Johnson. Photo credit should read: House of Commons/PA Wire URN:45029442 (Press Association via AP Images)