LONDON — Rebel members of Britain’s Parliament were poised Tuesday for a legislative showdown with Prime Minister Boris Johnson by seeking a three-month Brexit delay, a move that Johnson has warned would trigger a snap general election in mid-October.
Johnson surprised the political opposition, including a faction from his own Conservative Party, on Monday by signaling that he would seek a mandate from voters if legislators successfully block Britain’s departure from the European Union on Oct. 31.
The showdown is happening in Parliament, which returns from its summer recess Tuesday after days of legislators accusing each other of attacking British democracy and raucous street protests calling Johnson’s moves a “coup.”
Johnson enraged the opposition by ordering Parliament to be shuttered again, for five more weeks starting as early as Monday, as the country is debating its most serious political crisis in decades.
The E.U. flags of anti-Brexit activists fly as pro-Brexit activists stand with their placards and demonstrate near the Houses of Parliament in central London on Sept. 3, 2019. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
Several legal challenges have been filed against Johnson’s move to suspend Parliament. A court in Scotland was scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday from lawyers representing 75 opposition lawmakers who want to prevent the suspension.
In a sign of the economic uncertainty caused by the political turmoil, the British pound dropped to its lowest level against the dollar since October 2016.
Johnson’s threat of a snap election is aimed as much at his own party as at the opposition led by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. On Monday, Johnson said he would kick Conservative members of Parliament out of the party if they voted against his Brexit plans — meaning they would be unable to run as Conservatives in any upcoming election.
Unlike his predecessor Theresa May, who did everything she could to keep her party together, Johnson is pursuing tactics apparently aimed at uniting the Brexit vote and steering Britain out of the bloc, even if that means trimming his party by shedding dissenters.
British Conservative MP and former chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond arrives at the Cabinet Office on Whitehall in central London on Sept. 3, 2019. (Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images)
That has already caused some remarkable splits in the party. On Tuesday, Philip Hammond, who was Britain’s finance minister only a few weeks ago, told the BBC that he would back legislation to delay Brexit and that there were “enough” Conservative rebels for it to pass.
He also questioned whether Johnson and his allies could kick him out of the party, saying they would have the “fight of a lifetime” if they tried.
A general election, which Johnson allies say could happen on Oct. 14, could either sink Johnson’s government or give him a popular mandate to push his promised “do or die” Oct. 31 Brexit. It could also propel Corbyn, a nationally unpopular leftist and vocal critic of President Trump, into the prime minister’s job, creating more uncertainty about Brexit and relations with Washington.
Taken together, all the threats and maneuvers have created an extremely volatile and emotional political drama in Westminster, London’s political center, as Parliament convenes on Tuesday.
Corbyn has said his priority for the day is to introduce emergency legislation to block Britain from leaving the E.U. without an agreement in place to regulate trade, border security and other critical issues — the so-called no-deal Brexit.
Most lawmakers in Parliament oppose leaving without an exit plan, something many analysts say could be economically damaging and lead to food and medicine shortages. Johnson has dismissed those predictions as fearmongering.
A cross-party group of a dozen members of Parliament plans to propose legislation seeking a three-month extension of the Brexit deadline, according to a draft of the proposal circulated Monday evening by Labour legislator Hilary Benn.
First they would have to win a procedural battle allowing them to introduce the bill under emergency conditions.
Johnson on Monday accused his opponents of seeking “yet another pointless delay.”
“There are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay. We are leaving on 31 October, no ifs or buts,” he said.
Tuesday morning, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC that the delay legislation was “deeply irresponsible and counterproductive.”
“We cannot countenance any further delay because it stops the country from moving forward,” he said.
The House of Lords would also have to approve any delay legislation. Shami Chakrabarti, a Labour Party member of the Lords, told the BBC on Tuesday that she would support the bill and the result.
“Of course we want a general election,” she said. “We are geared up for it. We want it as soon as possible.”
Johnson also said that any delay would disrupt progress on negotiations with the E.U. over an exit deal. And he said it would undercut the government’s negotiating position.
Hammond said Johnson was being “disingenuous.”
He said there is “no progress” in negotiations with the E.U. because the government has put forward “no proposals” and there is not even a negotiating team.
If Johnson calls a snap election, he will need the backing of two-thirds of Parliament. Normally that would be easy, because the opposition would be enthusiastic about an opportunity to unseat him at the polls.
But Labour’s position is not completely clear. At a rally on Monday, Corbyn expressed enthusiasm, saying: “I will be delighted when the election comes. I’m ready for it.”
But other Labour lawmakers have said that now is not the time. Mary Creagh, a Labour politician, told the BBC that a general election is not the answer at the moment. Creagh said she worried that Johnson could schedule the election for sometime after the end of October, which would mean that Britain would “crash out” of the E.U. on Oct. 31, by default.
“We will not be complicit in crashing our country out without a deal,” Creagh vowed.
Johnson has also sought to counter Corbyn by promising large spending increases for education, health and other services. Corbyn for years has railed against Conservative Party austerity.
Johnson could also face stiff competition in an election from his right flank, particularly from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Johnson says he wants to strike a deal with the European Union, even though he would leave without a deal. Farage, a Brexit hard-liner, argues that Britain should leave regardless of the terms.