Boris Johnson running out of options ahead of looming Brexit deadline as UK Parliament rules out snap polls

  • The last chance to get a deal to avoid a Brexit delay is at an EU summit starting on October 17

  • But having lost his parliamentary majority after a swathe of his own Conservative MPs rebelled over the law, he is running out of options.

  • Some commentators have said Johnson may be forced to resign if he does not want to delay.

The simmering showdown between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Britain's Parliament over Brexit came to a head as lawmakers delivered three defeats to the government's plans for leaving the European Union, before being sent home early Tuesday for a contentious five-week suspension of the legislature.

In a session that ran well past midnight, Parliament enacted a law to block a no-deal Brexit next month, ordered the government to release private communications about its Brexit plans and rejected Johnson's call for a snap election to break the political deadlock.

Parliament was then suspended — or prorogued— at the government's request until October 14, a drastic move that gives Johnson a respite from rebellious lawmakers as he plots his next move. Opponents accuse him of trying to avoid democratic scrutiny. What is usually a solemn, formal prorogation ceremony erupted into raucous scenes as opposition lawmakers in the House of Commons chamber shouted "Shame on you" and held up signs reading "Silenced."

Meanwhile, the beleaguered prime minister vowed to continue with his attempts to strike a new Brexit deal with Brussels, after losing yet another parliamentary vote on Tuesday to hold an early election.

Johnson slammed the opposition for voting against his call for a snap poll next month, which under British law requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament in favour, until Johnson has either struck a deal or delayed Brexit beyond 31 October. He said he would "strive to get an agreement" at a summit in Brussels next month. "While the opposition run from their duty to answer to those who put us here, they cannot hide forever," he said. "The moment will come when the people will finally get their chance to deliver their verdict."

 Boris Johnson running out of options ahead of looming Brexit deadline as UK Parliament rules out snap polls

File image of Boris Johnson. PTI

Opposition parties voted against the measure or abstained, denying Johnson the two-thirds majority he needed. They want to make sure a no-deal departure is blocked before agreeing to an election.

"We're eager for an election, but as keen as we are we, we are not prepared to inflict the disaster of a no deal on our communities, our jobs, our services, or indeed our rights," Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said.

It was a final show of defiance in a stormy parliamentary session in which Johnson also lost a separate vote, calling on the government to publish confidential papers about the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit.

The prime minister insisted he would not delay, despite a bill being rushed through parliament in the past few days that could force him to do so if he fails to reach an agreement with the EU.

"This government will not delay Brexit any further," he insisted.

 

In exceptional scenes as the parliament shut down for five weeks, opposition Labour MPs waved signs reading "silenced", while one tried to restrain the speaker to prevent him leaving for the suspension ceremony. Opposition MPs jeered and chanted "shame on you" as government MPs left the chamber, while Bercow, in protest, called the suspension "an act of executive fiat".

Legislators demanded the government release, by Wednesday, emails and text messages among aides and officials relating to suspending Parliament and planning for Brexit amid allegations that the suspension is being used to circumvent democracy. Under parliamentary rules, the government is obliged to release the documents. In a statement, the government said it would "consider the implications of this vote and respond in due course."

Meanwhile, in a further sign of the political turmoil, House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, who has championed the rights of MPs to challenge the government, announced he was stepping down. The colourful speaker, famous for his loud ties and even louder cries of "Order!" during raucous debates, told lawmakers he will quit the same day Britain is due to leave the EU, 31 October. Bercow expressed his displeasure at Parliament's suspension, saying "this is not a standard or normal prorogation." "It's one of the longest for decades and it represents an act of executive fiat," he said.

Johnson took office in July promising to deliver on the 2016 referendum vote for Brexit, even if that means leaving without exit terms agreed with Brussels. But many MPs have rejected a no deal divorce and supported new legislation forcing Johnson to request a three-month delay if he fails to strike a deal.  His options — all of them extreme — include disobeying the law, which could land him in court or even prison, and resigning so that someone else would have to ask for a delay.

His last chance to reach an agreement is at the two-day EU summit starting on 17 October. Some commentators have said Johnson may be forced to resign if he does not want to make the delay request. Ministers have also hinted at a potential legal challenge against the law.

Britons voted in 2016 to leave the EU, but after three years of political wrangling, Parliament still cannot decide how to implement that decision.

Johnson says he wants to revise the deal agreed by his predecessor, Theresa May, which MPs rejected, but says this requires keeping open the option of walking away.

His wafer-thin majority in the Commons vanished last week when he expelled 21 of his own Conservative MPs for voting with Labour on the anti-no deal legislation, and saw two ministers quit his government — one of them his own brother. The bill — which became law on Monday — would force Johnson to delay Brexit to January or even later if he cannot get a deal with Brussels. The bill's passage through Parliament prompted anger from the government.

But Bercow, accused by eurosceptics of being biased against Brexit, warned the government that it could not now ignore parliament as he announced that he will step down on 31 October. "We degrade this parliament at our peril," he warned lawmakers, to a sustained ovation from largely opposition MPs.

Johnson acknowledged Monday that a no-deal Brexit "would be a failure of statecraft" for which he would be partially to blame. He had earlier visited Dublin for talks with his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar, a key player in the search for a Brexit deal. Johnson said he would "overwhelmingly prefer to find an agreement" and believed a deal could be struck by 18 October, when leaders of all 28 EU countries hold a summit in Brussels. But Varadkar warned Johnson that "there's no such thing as a clean break," and if Britain crashed out, it would "cause severe disruption for British and Irish people alike." Johnson and Varadkar said they had "a positive and constructive meeting," but there was no breakthrough on the issue of the Irish border, the main stumbling block to a Brexit deal.

MPs rejected the current agreement three times earlier this year, in large part because of its provisions to keep open the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Johnson wants to scrap the so-called "backstop" plan, which would keep Britain aligned to EU trade rules long after Brexit, to avoid any checks at the frontier. But the EU accuses him of offering no alternative. Opposition to the backstop was a key reason Britain's Parliament rejected May's Brexit deal with the EU three times earlier this year.
British Brexit supporters oppose the backstop because it locks Britain into EU trade rules to avoid customs checks, something they say will stop the UK from striking new trade deals with countries such as the United States.

An open border is crucial to the regional economy and underpins the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

With inputs from AP and AFP

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Updated Date: Sep 10, 2019 09:13:15 IST