Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE
Boris Johnson. Picture: REUTERS/PHIL NOBLE

London — The lower house of the British parliament voted on Wednesday to prevent Prime Minister Boris Johnson taking Britain out of the EU without a deal, but he proposed a snap election on October 15, just weeks before Brexit, to free his hands.

After wresting control of the parliamentary agenda from Johnson, the House of Commons backed a bill that would force the government to request a three-month Brexit delay rather than leave without a divorce agreement.

An alliance of opposition MPs and rebels from Johnson’s Conservative Party voted 329-300 and then 327-299 for the bill in the second and third readings. The bill now passes to the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords.

Parliament’s bid to tie Johnson’s hands leaves Brexit up in the air, with possible outcomes ranging from a no-deal exit from the EU to abandoning the whole endeavour — both outcomes that would be unacceptable to swathes of the UK’s voters.

Johnson said the bill had scuppered his Brexit negotiations with the EU and was designed to overturn the 2016 referendum on leaving the bloc.

“It’s therefore a bill without precedent in the history of this house, seeking as it does to force the prime minister with a pre-drafted letter to surrender in international negotiations,” Johnson told parliament. “I refuse to do this.”

“This house has left no other option than letting the public decide who they want as prime minister,” Johnson said.

He put forward a proposal to dissolve parliament and hold an election on October 15 but MPs voted against the proposal. With the opposition Labour Party abstaining, only 298 MPs voted in favour of holding an election — far short of the 434 threshold needed to trigger a national vote.

Election looms

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said he wanted an election but would not vote for one until the bill gained royal assent -a step that could happen on Monday.

Johnson’s opponents say he might exploit any wiggle room in setting an election date to allow Britain to leave the EU as scheduled on October 31 before a new parliament could convene.

Above all, they doubt that he can secure a better divorce deal before then than the one his predecessor Theresa May secured but failed to get through parliament.

They fear that the resulting “no-deal” Brexit, cutting Britain’s economic ties with the EU overnight, would dislocate trade and travel, damage the economy and cause shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

Sterling jumped briefly above $1.22 for the first time since August 30 as investors became slightly more optimistic that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could be avoided.

The UK fundamentally has three main Brexit options: to leave with a deal, leave without a deal or cancel Brexit.

If parliament does agree to hold a snap election, Britain would face three likely alternatives: a Brexiteer government under Johnson; a Labour government led by veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, who has promised a fresh referendum with staying in the EU as an option; and a “hung” parliament with a coalition or minority government.

There would be little time to negotiate any deal before October 31, but a new, avowedly pro-Brexit government could overturn any law passed by the current parliament aimed at preventing a no-deal departure.

In a sign of how far Brexit has distorted British politics, Johnson’s Conservatives said on Tuesday they were expelling 21 rebels —including the grandson of Britain’s Second World War  leader Winston Churchill and two former finance ministers — from the party. Hours earlier, Johnson had already lost his working majority as one of his MPs defected.

In one piece of good news for Johnson, a Scottish court ruled that his decision to suspend parliament later in September  was lawful.

Yet the EU has refused to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement reached with May.

In Brussels, British and EU diplomats made clear there was no immediate prospect of substantive negotiations on a divorce deal as Britain’s new negotiator arrived for talks.

And Ireland said Johnson had not yet presented any solutions to address the backstop — the toughest part of the Brexit impasse, concerning checks on the land border between the Irish Republic and the British province of Northern Ireland.

There were reports in British newspapers that Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings had described negotiations as a sham.

Asked on Wednesday if that was how he saw the Brexit negotiations with the EU, Cummings said: “No. I never said that.”

Reuters