UPDATE 4:50 p.m. ET: This piece was updated to include Parliament’s vote on snap elections.
LONDON — It seems like just yesterday that Theresa May was setting the bar for spectacularly embarrassing Brexit defeats. Somehow, her successor has managed to upstage her within his first days on the job.
British MPs voted Wednesday to block Boris Johnson from pulling the U.K. out of the EU without a deal in place — thwarting the new prime minister’s kamikaze Brexit strategy.
The vote, which passed its third reading in the House of Commons in a 327-299 vote, strips Johnson of what he had considered his trump card in negotiations with the EU: the threat of a mutually harmful no-deal Brexit, without an agreement with the bloc in place. Later in the parliamentary session, they dealt Johnson another blow, denying his bid for early elections, 298 votes to 56.
The increasingly likely prospect of a no deal Brexit — which analysts predict will be a disaster for the UK — triggered a mutiny in Johnson’s ruling Conservative party, prompting a group of more than 20 rebels to back the legislation and vote against the government.
Explaining his decision to Parliament, veteran Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Soames, said that “a threat to commit an act of self harm if your counterparts in a negotiation do not do exactly as you wish is not exactly likely to be an effective or successful negotiating strategy.” Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill and a figure of the Conservative establishment, was one of 21 rebel MPs expelled from the party for backing the bill.
The bill forces Johnson’s government to request a three-month Brexit delay from the EU, rather than leave without a divorce agreement in place. Johnson had repeatedly pledged to pull the UK out of the EU on the scheduled deadline of Oct. 31, whether or not a deal is in place.
Since coming to power in July, Johnson has pledged to do what his predecessor Theresa May could not, and break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. His first step to achieve this was a shock move to suspend Parliament for five weeks starting next week, cutting the time lawmakers have to maneuver against him.
Parliament has repeatedly rejected the government’s draft withdrawal agreements with the EU, resulting in the messy break-up stretching well past the initial March 29, 2019 deadline, with no resolution in sight.
Wednesday’s vote represents a significant defeat for Johnson, but he still has options. The bill still has to be approved by the House of Lords before Parliament breaks next week, and gain royal assent from the Queen — a formality — before it passes into law.
Johnson, who says the no deal-blocking legislation is a “surrender bill” that critically undermines his negotiating position with the EU, had pledged to call a snap election if the bill passed, to secure a fresh mandate to press ahead with his do or die Brexit policy.
But the Prime Minister can’t simply call elections on his own. Under British law, two-thirds of lawmakers — 434 MPs — must vote for new elections to be held.
The opposition Labour party— despite having insisted for months that it wanted fresh elections — has said it will not support new elections until the law preventing a no deal Brexit is passed, and abstained from Wednesday night’s vote on snap elections.
Despite the taunts from the prime minister in parliament Wednesday attempting to goad opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to the polls— Johnson said he was a “chicken” and appeared to call him a “great big girl’s blouse” — Labour views such a move as a trap.
“The offer of an election today is a bit like the offer of an apple to Snow White from the wicked queen,” said Corbyn, as the two leaders clashed in Parliament.
The party, which is trailing the Conservatives in the polls, fears it would lose a fresh vote, and that Johnson would claim a victory as a renewed mandate to press ahead with his Brexit plans.
“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.”
Cover: In this photo provided by the House of Commons, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, center, gestures during his first Prime Minister's Questions, in the House of Commons in London, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019.