UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on September 5 2019. Picture: PA WIRE/POOL VIA REUTERS/DANNY LAWSON
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on September 5 2019. Picture: PA WIRE/POOL VIA REUTERS/DANNY LAWSON

London — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s opponents are seeking ways to outmanoeuvre him on Brexit. Their latest idea is to hold a UK election in late October.

On Thursday, Johnson stood in a police academy in the north of England, giving a speech that was supposed to mark the start of a month-long snap election campaign. Instead, the embattled leader was trying to fight back after a series of humiliating defeats for his Brexit strategy this week, culminating in the resignation of his own brother in protest at his plans.

Out of options, Johnson doubled down on his plan to trigger a general election to win a parliamentary majority so he can fulfill his pledge to take the UK out of the EU — with or without a divorce deal — on October 31. The prime minister didn’t say if he’d resign if he failed, but he did declare that he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than agree to another Brexit delay.

“We want an election on October 15 [or], indeed, earlier,” Johnson said on Thursday. “I really don’t see how you can have a situation in which the British ability to negotiate is absolutely torpedoed by parliament.”

But his opponents won’t agree to his plan and say they are are worried he aims to crash the UK out of the EU with no deal on October 31 — the currently scheduled exit day.

According to a person familiar with the matter, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn is in talks with the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) leadership over blocking Johnson’s bid and asking for an election late next month, with October 29 the date most likely at this stage. Corbyn will convene a phone-call with opposition parties for further talks on Friday morning, the Labour party said in a statement.

Johnson was forced to give up fighting his opponents in Parliament after losing to them multiple times. Rebels from Johnson’s own Conservative ranks, backed by politicians from rival parties, pushed through a law that could stop him crashing Britain out of the EU with no deal next month. Boxing him in, they then thwarted the government’s attempt to trigger a snap election.

Expulsions

Johnson dismayed his colleagues by expelling MPs who rebelled against him from the Conservative Party, including two former chancellors and Winston Churchill’s grandson. By Thursday, his  radical “do-or-die” approach had become too much for his brother.

Announcing his decision on Twitter, Jo Johnson said he’d been torn between loyalty for his brother, the prime minister, and the “national interest”. He chose the latter and quit as skills minister. He’ll also no longer attend Johnson’s cabinet.

Johnson put on a brave face, but the symbolism couldn’t be clearer.

“Jo doesn’t agree with me about the EU because it’s an issue obviously that divides families, that divides everybody,” he said, before noting that his brother supports his wider agenda for the country.

Johnson saved his attacks for Corbyn. “I think he must be the first leader of the opposition in history to refuse to have an election. Indeed it seems to me to be a breach of his job description.”

On stage, surrounded by dozens of police officers, Johnson’s speech was seen as an attempt to get a head start in an election campaign. He reasserted his pledge to recruit 20,000 police officers and trumpeted his commitment to law and order.

Towards the end of the speech, one female police office was faint with sickness and had to sit down. Johnson was over an hour late for his speech in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and the officers were required to stand there for longer than intended.

Meanwhile, European officials are watching events in Britain in bafflement and are not clear if Johnson genuinely wants to strike a new deal. EU diplomats said talks on a compromise between Johnson’s EU envoy David Frost and the European Commission have so far been a waste of time.

Bloomberg