When British MPs return from their summer recess Tuesday, they won’t have time to compare holiday snaps. The stage is set for another bloody political showdown as soon as parliament reconvenes, after rebel MPs from the ruling Conservative party said Monday they planned to vote against the government to try to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
The direct challenge to Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans — he says Britain must leave the European Union on Oct. 31, with or without a deal — has angered the prime minister, who says taking the possibility of “no deal” off the table only undermines his attempts to secure a better deal with the EU. He said Monday that any of his MPs who vote with the opposition will be booted out of the party, and indicated that if the rebels prevail, he will call an early election.
That’s kicked off yet another round of knives-out political maneuvering as the Brexit clock continues to count down, with just 59 days before Britain is scheduled to depart the EU, and no deal with the bloc in place.
What on earth is happening?
On Monday, a so-called rebel alliance of dissenting MPs from the ruling Conservatives said they would push legislation to compel Johnson to ask the EU for a deadline extension if there had been no EU withdrawal deal approved by Parliament by Oct. 19. Under their plan, which also has the backing of opposition parties, Johnson would have to ask the EU to extend the deadline until Jan. 31, 2020, to buy further time to try to find a way out of the long-running crisis.
Parliament rejected every single draft withdrawal agreement negotiated between the EU and the previous government led by Theresa May, leaving the Brexit process deadlocked.
The new prime minister said Monday he believed he would secure a better deal at an EU summit on Oct. 17 — but has pledged that Britain will leave the EU by the next deadline on Oct. 31 whether it has a deal or not. Last week Johnson infuriated MPs when he made the extraordinary move of suspending Parliament for five weeks, cutting the time his opponents will have to move against him in Parliament.
The alliance, led by Labour’s Hilary Benn and former Conservative ministers Philip Hammond and David Gauke, say they aim to push their legislation through parliament under Standing Order 24 — a rule that allows urgent debates to be heard.
The debate can only proceed if the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, gives his permission — but he looks likely to do so. Last week, Bercow described Johnson’s suspension of parliament as “a constitutional outrage.”
Will the rebel alliance succeed?
The rebels, who include a number of influential Conservative lawmakers who only weeks ago were senior figures in May’s cabinet, believe they have the numbers. In a fiery BBC Radio interview Tuesday morning, Hammond, the former finance minister, said: “I think there will be enough people to get this over the line.”
He said many Conservative MPs were furious about Johnson’s actions, and were unfazed by his threat of excommunication.
“Many colleagues have been incensed by some of the actions over the last week or so,” he said. “I think there’s a group of Conservatives who feel very strongly that now is a time where we have to put the national interest ahead of any threats to us personally or to our careers.”
He cast doubt on whether Johnson could kick him out of the party, saying the PM would face the “fight of a lifetime” if he tried.
The defections continued as Johnson was delivering a speech to Parliament, with Conservative MP Phillip Lee crossing the floor to join the opposition Liberal Democrats, tweeting his resignation letter shortly afterwards. "Sadly, the Brexit process has helped to transform this once great Party in to something more akin to a narrow faction, where an individual's 'conservatism' is measured by how recklessly one wishes to leave the European Union," it read.
His defection means Johnson's government no longer has a working majority.
Another Conservative rebel, the former Conservative cabinet minister Justine Greening, said Tuesday she would leave her post at the next election anyway, in protest at the way the Conservatives had become the “Brexit party.”
According to reports, Johnson met with the rebel MPs Tuesday morning in a bid to persuade them to call off their challenge, but failed to make any impression. Conservative MP Sam Gyimah said Tuesday he planned to vote against the government to stop a no deal Brexit “because it is the right thing to do. I have no mandate from my constituents for a damaging and disorderly Brexit.”
A vote on the bill might not happen until late into the night Tuesday.
What happens if the bill passes?
In responding to the challenge Monday, Johnson indicated he may move to call a snap election on Oct. 14 if the rebels’ bill passes — one that could either sink his government, or provide it with the mandate to press on with his kamikaze vision of Brexit.
“I don’t want an election and you don’t want an election,” he said, alluding to the fact Britain has had three national votes since 2015.
But holding another election would be preferable to another “pointless” Brexit delay, he said.
Under British law, snap elections can’t simply be called by the PM, but must be voted for by two-thirds of MPs.
Labour has given mixed messages about whether it would support a snap election, given the party’s own recent troubles, which have seen it trailing the Conservatives in polls by about 10 points. Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left politics and perceived ambivalence over Brexit have alienated some supporters, and the party has been grappling with allegations it has a problem with institutional anti-Semitism.
Corbyn said his first priority was to "bring the country back from the brink" by blocking the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, before pushing for an election.
“The solution is to let the people decide and call a general election,” he said. “It is the people not an unelected prime minister who should determine our country's future.”
Polling data suggests both the Conservatives and Labour are set to lose seats if new elections are called, as the issue of Brexit continues to divide both major parties.
The research suggested dissatisfaction over their handling of Brexit could see the Conservatives lose 18 percent of their votes to more hardline parties like the Brexit Party, while Labour, which has been criticized for its ambivalent stance on the Brexit question, could lose 22 percent of its Remain voters and 25 percent of its Leave voters.
That all sounds very chaotic
And that’s only what’s going on in Parliament. Outside Westminster, three separate legal actions have been launched challenging Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, where a majority voted in 2016 to remain in the European Union, the chaos has led to renewed calls to hold another referendum on independence from the UK. Scots voted by 55 percent to 45 percent to remain part of the UK in a 2014 referendum, but many leading Scottish politicians, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, argue that Brexit will mean the question should be put to voters again.
Many British politicians warn that even the drastic step of fresh elections in October would fail to bring any kind of clarity to the crisis, which has created a new and enduring faultline in the country’s politics.
Rebel Conservative MP Greening, announcing her plans Tuesday to resign at the next election, said a new general election wouldn’t provide any clarity from the public on how to proceed out of the Brexit deadlock. Instead, she called for a second referendum.
“I think a far better way of resolving the path forward on Brexit is to give the British people a direct choice between the different options on Brexit themselves rather than a messy general election,” she told BBC Radio 4. “I believe all the evidence suggests [it] will be yet again inconclusive on a route forward on Brexit.”
Cover: Remain campaigners hold signs next to a giant puppet depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushing a detonator on a No Deal outside Parliament Square in London, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2019. Opposition parties are challenging British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's insistence that the U.K. will leave the EU on Oct. 31, 2019 even without a deal, setting up a pivotal day in British politics. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)