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Brexit Showdown in Parliament as Boris Johnson Warns of a General Election

LONDON — British lawmakers were preparing on Tuesday for one of the most critical showdowns of the country’s agonizing three-year Brexit battle, with Parliament expected to try to stop the government from leaving the European Union without an agreement — a maneuver that could prompt a third general election in four years.

Lawmakers are expected to try to seize control of events in Parliament, a process that is normally the preserve of the government. Such a move would clear the way for them to force Prime Minister Boris Johnson to seek an extension to the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline if he fails to reach an exit agreement with the bloc.

The clash on Tuesday has been made possible by a faction of lawmakers in Mr. Johnson’s own party who have said they will not support a no-deal departure, threatening to defy the prime minister’s warning that Tory rebels will be expelled from the party if they pursue the parliamentary effort.

The confrontation is the latest chapter in an escalating crisis over Brexit that has divided Britons. It has torn apart the governing Conservative Party, provoked claims that Mr. Johnson is trampling the conventions of Britain’s unwritten constitution and led to accusations that Brexit opponents are trying to circumvent the results of a democratic referendum.

Opponents of a no-deal Brexit argue that Mr. Johnson’s promise to leave the bloc without a deal would be catastrophic for the British economy. Many experts say it could lead to shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and wreak havoc on parts of the manufacturing sector that rely on the seamless flow of goods across the English Channel.

Despite the threats of a party purge, Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer under Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, said on Tuesday that he would join the efforts to stop a no-deal Brexit, adding that he thought the rebels had enough support for victory.

Mr. Hammond also dismissed claims from the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, that opponents of a no-deal Brexit were undermining Mr. Johnson’s negotiating strategy in Brussels. There had been, Mr. Hammond told the BBC, no progress in those talks.

To add to the turmoil and confusion, the opposition Labour Party said it might thwart Mr. Johnson’s attempt to push for a general election, should it come to that. Under a 2011 law, the prime minister needs a two-thirds majority in order to secure a snap election.

The bitter dispute has taken Britain into new political territory. Last week Mr. Johnson provoked outrage by curtailing Parliament’s sessions in September and October, compacting the amount of time lawmakers would have to deal with the most crucial decision the country has faced in decades.

Mr. Johnson says he needs to keep the no-deal option on the table to give him leverage in talks in Brussels, because an abrupt exit would also damage continental economies, if not as much as Britain’s.

On Monday, he said that the rebels were trying to “chop the legs” from his negotiating position at a time when he is making progress, although the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, gave a more downbeat assessment of those negotiations.

Mr. Hammond told the BBC on Tuesday that Mr. Johnson’s claim was “disingenuous” because there was “no progress going on” in discussions in Brussels. One of the most unlikely of rebels, Mr. Hammond was a senior member of the cabinet two months ago, and his downbeat style and focus on economic detail earned him the nickname “Spreadsheet Phil.”

But he accused his enemies of trying to turn the Conservative Party from “a broad church into a narrow faction,” and criticized Mr. Johnson’s close aide Dominic Cummings.

If Mr. Johnson does pursue a general election, Mr. Hammond said he would try to block that push.

There is so little trust in British politics that Mr. Johnson’s opponents fear that he might request an election for Oct. 14 but then switch the date until after Oct. 31 as part of a move to lock in a no-deal withdrawal.

Labour, which has its own polarizing leader in Jeremy Corbyn, has said that its priority is to stop Britain leaving the European Union without a deal because of concerns about what such a departure would mean for the economy.

But Labour’s stance underscores that the backdrop to everything in British politics is a sense that a general election is looming, with key players maneuvering for the most advantageous moment.

Even with the support of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland, the government has a working majority in Parliament of just one, a position that cannot be sustained by any administration for long, let alone one facing the challenge of Brexit.

Mr. Johnson is trying to unite the political right, particularly Brexit supporters frustrated with Britain’s failure to leave the bloc earlier this year. Some Tories fear that they face an existential threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, leading to a belief that Mr. Johnson must pursue a no-deal Brexit, whatever the economic cost, to save his party.

Others think that the disruption likely to flow from such a rupture would make it impossible for the government to win a vote.

Source: NYT > World News

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