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U.K. Opposition Lawmakers Plan to Turn Up Heat on Boris Johnson

LONDON — Having suffered a stinging defeat in his first parliamentary vote on Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain faced more setbacks on Wednesday.

After a night of extraordinary theater in Parliament, Mr. Johnson confronted a bleak scene scattered with the remnants of his Brexit strategy and raising the possibility that the issue could destroy his premiership just as it has the two previous Conservative prime ministers, but more rapidly.

In the course of Tuesday evening, the prime minister had lost control of Parliament, and with it his oft-made promise to carry out Brexit, “do or die”; possibly fractured his Conservative Party by carrying out a purge of 21 rebel lawmakers; and saw his plan for a swift general election held up by his opponents.

Even if lawmakers ultimately decide to proceed with a quick election, there are urgent questions about whether it will settle anything, given the divisions in the traditional political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, engendered by the Brexit issue.

Wednesday’s events unfolded against a developing consensus among Mr. Johnson’s opponents that he may have overplayed his hand through hardball tactics, devised by his adviser Dominic Cummings, a leading strategist in the main pro-Brexit campaign during the 2016 referendum.

From suspending Parliament for five weeks to kicking out rebel Tories for voting against the government, Mr. Johnson has united disparate elements in the opposition and his own party against him.

Another product of his take-no-prisoners approach has been an erosion of trust. While he needs the Labour Party’s votes to reach the two-thirds threshold required in Parliament to call an election, its leaders are deeply suspicious of his motives.

The prime minister has said an election would take place on Oct. 15, but they worry that he will invent an excuse to move the date closer to the Oct. 31 deadline for leaving the European Union — or even after that — at the very least leaving no time for legislating after the balloting.

Determined not to “walk into a trap,” as the Labour spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer,said on Wednesday, the party is refusing to back Mr. Johnson’s call for an election until legislation ruling out a no-deal Brexit becomes the law of the land.

Mr. Starmer said Labour would not vote for an election on a promise from Mr. Johnson “that it will be 15 October — which we don’t believe.”

Having won control of the legislative agenda on Tuesday night, lawmakers planned to press ahead with the measure to rule out a no-deal Brexit. It is expected to pass, with the backing of a hefty 21 Conservative lawmakers who rebelled against Mr. Johnson’s Brexit plans.

Those Tory rebels were told immediately afterward that they no longer represented the party, depriving the government of a working majority and prompting a fierce backlash from internal critics, who pointed out that most of the current government ministers had broken with the party in previous Brexit votes without retribution.

For Mr. Johnson’s opponents, the question now is whether to allow an election to take place in October or to delay it into November, once the current Brexit deadline has been put back beyond Oct. 31.

Many Labour lawmakers favor November, fearing that if Mr. Johnson were to win an October election with a clear majority, he could reverse any law they make this week preventing a no-deal Brexit, and pull Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31 without an agreement.

Other opposition politicians are willing to take that risk, including Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, who wrote on Twitter that she would support an election once the new legislation was in place.

Her support could be important if, later this week, Mr. Johnson tries to force through an October general election by legislating to set aside the requirement for a two-thirds majority of lawmakers. Under that maneuver, he would require only a simple majority.

However the wrangling in Parliament comes out in the coming days, most analysts believe that an election is inevitable in the near future after years of stalemate over Brexit, and is probably the only way to break the cycle of endless and fruitless debate.

There is also widespread agreement that the events of recent weeks have underscored a toxic lack of trust in Parliament, leaving British politics in an ever more bizarre state.

Mr. Johnson insisted that he did not want an election but was being forced into one and intended to seek it. Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour leader, has been saying for two years that he wants an election, but is now preparing to block one.

They clashed in Parliament on Wednesday in an exchange that gave every impression that a general election is looming. But Mr. Johnson also faced an uncomfortable attack from an opposition lawmaker who was applauded when he accused the prime minister of voicing racist sentiments in an article he wrote before last year.

On Brexit, the government has been tripping over another paradox in recent weeks. On one hand, it argues that it needs the threat of a no-deal Brexit as leverage in negotiations with the European Union, presumably because the bloc wants to avoid the economic repercussions.

But ministers like Michael Gove, who is in charge of Brexit preparations, are trying to reassure the British public, dismissing warnings of economic chaos from a cliff-edge departure as “Project Fear” and insisting that they have the situation under control.

The European Commission does seem to view a no-deal Brexit with trepidation, saying on Wednesday that it wanted to make available 780 million euros, about $ 860 million, normally used for natural disasters and the effects of globalization to member states that would suffer financially from Britain’s abrupt departure.

In an updated document published on Wednesday, it set out additional urgent measures that it proposes to mitigate a no-deal Brexit, signaling that Brussels considers that scenario likely despite the political gyrations in London.

The latest crisis was precipitated by Mr. Johnson’s decision last week to suspend the sittings of Parliament in September and October, a move that prompted claims that he was subverting the conventions of Britain’s unwritten constitution. It also prompted legal challenges, and on Wednesday a judge in Scotland ruled against a challenge seeking to invalidate Mr. Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks.

His initial decision galvanized his critics in the Conservative Party who believed that Mr. Johnson’s intention was to unite Brexit supporters behind him ahead of an election, rather than to negotiate a new exit deal with the European Union.

The rebellion, and the purge of those Conservative members of Parliament, was the culmination of an escalation by Downing Street using unusually aggressive tactics. Some of the party’s best-known and most respected lawmakers were ejected from their political home, in some cases after decades of service.

Those disciplined include two former chancellors of the Exchequer: Philip Hammond, who held the post only a few weeks ago; and Kenneth Clarke, the longest-serving lawmaker in Parliament.

Out, too, went Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill and the grandest and most colorful of the Tory grandees.

Another victim was Rory Stewart, the maverick former cabinet minister who enlivened the Conservative leadership contest that was finally won by Mr. Johnson in July.

“It came by text, and it was a pretty astonishing moment,” Mr. Stewart said of his expulsion from the Conservative parliamentary party. “Remember that only a few weeks ago I was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party against Boris Johnson and I was in the cabinet.”

“It feels a little like something that one associates with other countries: One opposes the leader, and one loses the leadership — no longer in the cabinet and now apparently thrown out of the party and apparently out of one’s seat, too,” he told the BBC.

Michael Howard, a former party leader loyal to Mr. Johnson, defended the purge and told the BBC that in a general election, any Conservative candidate for the party should support the leadership’s hard line on Brexit, suggesting that the party is determined to scoop up voters from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

“Everyone has to know with total clarity that if they vote Conservative and a Conservative government is elected, we will leave the E.U.,” Mr. Howard said.

But the immediate effect for the Conservatives has been traumatic, and has reduced the government’s working majority in Parliament to minus 43 from one.

Source: NYT > World News

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