With Britain’s prime minister weakened by a major defeat in Parliament, defiant lawmakers were moving Wednesday to bar Boris Johnson from pursuing a “no-deal” departure from the European Union. In retaliation, the new leader plans to call an early general election that would put his own future, and that of his Conservative Party, on the line in a bid for a new Parliament that would back his Brexit policy.
Johnson enjoyed a brief honeymoon after taking power in July, dominating the news with public spending programs while Parliament was in recess, but that came to an abrupt end Tuesday night as rebellious lawmakers — including 21 of Johnson’s fellow Conservatives — voted 328 to 301 to seize control of the Brexit agenda.
There is still great uncertainty about how — or even if — Britain will ultimately leave the prosperous EU bloc and strike out on its own, a cherished goal for Johnson and his inner circle of Brexit-minded advisers.
The course remains unpredictable. Even if the rebels force through legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, an extension beyond that date can only take effect if each of the other 27 EU nations approves it.
The Conservative revolt comes at a cost as the party frays under Brexit pressure. Some senior Conservative Party figures, including former Treasury chief Philip Hammond and Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, joined the rebellion and face expulsion from the party after decades of service.
The prime minister’s risky plan to call an early election also may be difficult to obtain. He would need a two-thirds majority to back him in Parliament, and wary opposition parties do not trust Johnson to make good on any promise to hold an election before the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been demanding an election for several years, said Tuesday night he would only back a new election if the legislation blocking a no-deal is already in place.
A frustrated Johnson complained after the vote that Parliament was giving the EU control of the negotiations and said he would not seek a delay under any circumstances.
“I don’t want an election but if MPs vote tomorrow to stop the negotiations and to compel another pointless delay of Brexit, potentially for years, then that will be the only way to resolve this,” Boris Johnson said.
If an election is scheduled, it would probably be held in mid-October. There are many unknowns — for starters, it is not clear whether there might eventually be an alliance between Johnson and the Brexit Party led by euroskeptic Nigel Farage. Those two teamed up effectively in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Labour’s position is not entirely clear. Party leader Corbyn opposes a no-deal departure but has disappointed many party members who want him to call for Brexit to be stopped altogether.
The vote in Parliament on Tuesday night suggests strong support for preventing the no-deal scenario. It was only made possible by 21 Conservative Party legislators who defied Johnson and will see their parliamentary careers come to an early end because of it.
The cross-party rebels are fighting to prevent a no-deal Brexit because of fears it would gravely damage the economy and plunge Britain into a prolonged recession while also leading to possible medicine and food shortages. The vote came hours after Johnson suffered a key defection from his party, costing him his working majority in Parliament.
Johnson and his backers say the fears about no-deal are overblown and that voters who backed Brexit are demanding action, not more talk.
Downing Street said after the vote that party members who defied Johnson on the vote would be expelled. Johnson’s hardline stance has infuriated many longtime, prominent party members.
Dominic Grieve, who was attorney general in David Cameron’s government, says the expulsion threats demonstrate Johnson’s “ruthlessness.” Greening said she feared her beloved party was “morphing into Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.” Former Treasury chief Hammond warned of the “fight of a lifetime” if officials tried to prevent him from running in the next election.
Tuesday’s defections come after Johnson last week maneuvered to give his political opponents even less time to block a chaotic no-deal Brexit, getting Queen Elizabeth II’s approval to suspend Parliament. His outraged critics sued, and attorneys arguing the case at a court in Scotland completed submissions Tuesday. The judge could rule as soon as Wednesday. Two other major legal challenges to the suspension are pending.
In one of the cases, former Prime Minister John Major — a Conservative Party grandee — plans to argue that Johnson’s planned suspension of Parliament should be overturned by the courts.
Johnson claims progress is being made in talks with the EU, but there are doubts about the validity of this assertion. Only 58 days before the scheduled exit, the EU said it had received no proposals from the British government aimed at overcoming the impasse.
European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said the EU’s executive body, which supervises talks on behalf of Britain’s 27 European partners, is operating on the “working assumption” that Britain will leave the bloc Oct. 31.