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Britain’s Boris Johnson Threatens Brexit Rebels With New Election

LONDON — With a critical showdown over Brexit looming in Parliament, Britain’s mercurial new prime minister, Boris Johnson, took his opponents by surprise again Monday by threatening a snap general election if they defy him in a crucial vote to be held on Tuesday.

A government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Johnson had told the cabinet that if lawmakers vote against the government on Tuesday, he would seek the go-ahead for a general election to be held on Oct. 14.

The move is intended to pressure rebel lawmakers in his own party to pull back from supporting legislation to stop a potentially disorderly British exit from the European Union without any agreement on Oct. 31.

But it also raises the prospect that Britons could soon be voting in the third general election in a little over four years — just ahead of one of the most important decisions in British history.

In remarks from 10 Downing Street Monday evening, Mr. Johnson emphasized that he would not under any circumstances request what the rebel lawmakers want: another delay in withdrawing from the European Union if Britain is unable to reach a formal agreement on how to do so with the bloc.

Leaving aside the remote possibility that his negotiators will reach a Brexit agreement that Parliament will accept, that means that if lawmakers pass a measure forbidding a “no-deal” Brexit, Mr. Johnson would have to either ignore it or call a general election.

Under a 2011 law, two-thirds of lawmakers would have to approve such a motion for the election to take place, so Mr. Johnson cannot be sure of success. It would be hard, though, for the opposition Labour Party to oppose holding a vote it says the country needs.

Mr. Johnson insists that to succeed in new negotiations in Brussels, he must have the option of walking away and pulling Britain out of the bloc without a formal agreement. That would damage continental European economies — albeit not as much as Britain’s — and, he argues, give him negotiating leverage.

On Monday, Mr. Johnson accused his opponents of “chopping the legs” out from under his negotiators.

But his opponents say that there is no real chance of renegotiating the deal and that Mr. Johnson is just playing political games, positioning himself for a general election he thinks is inevitable.

For one thing, he has put the rebels in his party on notice that if they back the measure to prevent a no-deal Brexit, they will be purged from the party and accused — along with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn — of undermining negotiations with the European Union.

In a general election, Mr. Johnson could then try to seek a mandate as the champion of the people against a Parliament intent on frustrating the 2016 referendum decision to leave the union. That, however, would place in the firing line some prominent politicians — several of whom, like the former chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond — were senior cabinet ministers just weeks ago.

In political jargon, Mr. Johnson is treating this week’s Brexit votes as an “issue of confidence,” suggesting that the result of a defeat for the government would be a general election.

The stakes are high.

Mr. Johnson acknowledges that there could be economic and social disruption from a no-deal Brexit but argues that it would be manageable.

His critics point to warnings that it might leave ports gridlocked, and lead to shortages of fuel, medicines and some kinds of food. Moreover, they argue, it would leave Britain in a worse negotiating position to secure a deal with its biggest trading partner, the European Union.

With time running out for lawmakers to constrain Mr. Johnson, the maneuvers in Parliament on Tuesday could prove to be a decisive moment in a three-year battle over Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Mr. Johnson’s critics have accused him of trampling the principles of the country’s unwritten constitution. Last week, he set off outrage when he moved to suspend Parliament, in effect trying to limit its ability to constrain him ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline.

The latest escalation, though high risk, could make sense for Mr. Johnson, who has a working majority in Parliament of just one, and needs to hold a general election some time soon.

The big debate has been whether to do so before Oct. 31. An election in October might be less risky than one after a no-deal Brexit, which could prove disruptive and alarm voters.

Tom Brake, the Brexit spokesman for the centrist and pro-European Liberal Democrats, said he was preparing for an announcement about an election from Mr. Johnson, possibly within 48 hours.

Opposition politicians believe that an October general election would entail a deeply divisive campaign in a highly polarized country whose politics have been scrambled by Brexit. Indeed, some have talked about blocking a snap election.

Some centrist Conservative lawmakers have not given up hope that Mr. Johnson can still strike a deal with Brussels, allowing an orderly exit from the bloc, and ministers insist this is still possible.

“We are committed to getting a deal,” Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary told reporters on Monday. “We are equally committed to leaving on Oct. 31, come what may.”

He gave little concrete indication of the progress in talks that Mr. Johnson claims has been made recently.

Mr. Barclay demanded assurances from the European Union that it was willing to negotiate flexibly over Britain’s main demand — the elimination of the so-called Irish backstop plan. The backstop is intended to ensure that whatever happens in trade talks, goods will flow unimpeded across Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

“Either there is an appetite for creative and flexible solutions, in which case we stand ready to bring detail forward, or there is an all-weather, unchanged absolutist approach,” Mr. Barclay said. This, he warned, could mean a no-deal Brexit that precipitates the very problems the backstop is meant to prevent.

Although Mr. Brake said he was confident of getting enough support in Parliament for the bill constraining Mr. Johnson, the math could be tight. Some Conservative lawmakers who oppose a no-deal exit are wavering, anxious to give Mr. Johnson every chance to secure a new deal in Brussels, and unsure about the approach chosen by Mr. Johnson’s opponents.

The threat to end their political careers — and to force an election — is likely to make many potential rebels pause for thought.

The bill is expected to require that the government, if there is no agreement with the European Union, request another extension of the negotiating period. It has already been prolonged twice.

In any event, a crucial moment in the Brexit saga, seems to have arrived.

If Mr. Johnson makes good on his threat and kicks several of his own Conservative lawmakers out of the party, his ability to control the House of Commons is likely to disappear.

That makes a quick election all but imperative.

Source: NYT > World News

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