LONDON (Reuters) – British lawmakers on Tuesday began a bid to stop Boris Johnson pursuing what they cast as a calamitous ‘no-deal’ Brexit, a challenge that a senior government source said would prompt the prime minister to press for a snap election on Oct. 14.
More than three years after the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, the outcome of the Brexit crisis remains uncertain, with possible outcomes ranging from a turbulent no-deal exit to abandoning the whole endeavour.
Johnson implicitly warned lawmakers on Monday that he would seek an election if they tied his hands in talks to negotiate a last-minute divorce deal, ruling out ever countenancing a further delay to Brexit, originally due to take place last March but now scheduled for Oct. 31.
That set up an historic showdown between prime minister and parliament in a country once touted as a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability. Sterling flirted briefly with some of its lowest levels since 1985. [GBP/]
On parliament’s first day back from its summer break, an alliance of opposition lawmakers and rebels in Johnson’s Conservative Party put forward a motion to launch their bid to block a no-deal exit, and appeared confident of victory.
Johnson cast the challenge as an attempt to force Britain to surrender to the EU just as he hopes to secure concessions on the terms of the divorce – a step he said he would never accept.
“It means running up the white flag,” Johnson said. “It is a bill that, if passed, would force me to go to Brussels and beg an extension. It would force me to accept the terms offered. It would destroy any chance of negotiation for a new deal.
Just as Johnson began speaking, he lost his working majority in parliament when one of his own Conservative lawmakers, Phillip Lee, crossed the floor of the House of Commons to join the pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told parliament that Johnson’s was a government with “no mandate, no morals and, as of today, no majority”.
(GRAPHIC: Parliament’s active sitting days – here)
(GRAPHIC: Length of EU treaty debates in the UK – here)
(GRAPHIC: Process of a no-confidence vote – here)
“READY TO FIGHT”
In the eye of the Brexit maelstrom, it was unclear if opposition parties would support any move to call an election – which requires the support of two-thirds of the 650-seat House of Commons.
“If an election is called, I am absolutely ready to fight it,” Corbyn said after a meeting with leaders of other opposition parties, while adding that his priority was to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
The pound, which has gyrated to the twists and turns of Brexit since the 2016 referendum and is highly sensitive to the prospect of a ‘no-deal’ exit, briefly dipped as low as $1.1959 GBP=D3. Barring a minutes-long “flash crash” in October 2016, sterling has not regularly traded at such low levels since 1985.
Fears of an abrupt ‘no-deal’ Brexit were rising elsewhere.
The European Commission said such a scenario was a “very distinct possibility” and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was the most likely scenario.
The U.N. trade agency UNCTAD said it would cost Britain at least $16 billion (13 billion pounds) in lost exports to the EU, plus a further substantial sum in indirect costs.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence used a visit to Ireland on Tuesday to urge the European Union to negotiate with Britain “in good faith”.
The 2016 Brexit referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union, and has fuelled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and modern Britishness.
It has also triggered civil war inside both of Britain’s main political parties as dozens of lawmakers put what they see as the United Kingdom’s fate above that of party loyalty.
As Johnson played Brexit chess with lawmakers, opponents cast his tactics as undemocratic, including an order to suspend parliament for more than a month beginning next week. That has been followed by his threat to kick rebels out of the ruling party – some of them former ministers who left the cabinet just weeks ago.
(GRAPHIC: Sterling positions – here)
(GRAPHIC: Plummeting pound – here)
“WE HAVE THE NUMBERS”
“I think we will have the numbers,” said one of the rebels, former finance minister Philip Hammond. “Prime Minister Johnson has always intended that there will be an election.”
The rebel alliance planned to put forward an emergency motion for a vote on Tuesday allowing its members to seize control of the parliamentary agenda the following day to try to pass legislation that would force Johnson to seek a three-month delay to Britain’s EU exit.
Johnson raised the stakes, however, effectively turning it into a confidence vote by making clear that if the government were defeated, it would hold a vote on Wednesday to approve an early election, most likely to be held on Oct. 14.
“The prime minister’s mood is determined,” his spokesman said. “He wants to get on with delivering on the result of the referendum and the UK leaving the EU on October 31st, ideally with a deal.”
He cast the rebel bill as “a blueprint for legislative purgatory”.
While Johnson said he did not want a snap election, a senior government source said lawmakers should be aware that it would be a consequence of their decision to vote against the government.
“I don’t want an election. You don’t want an election. Let’s get on with the people’s agenda,” Johnson said on Monday at a hastily organised appearance outside Number 10 Downing Street.
The U.S. investment bank JPMorgan said an election would make a no-deal Brexit more likely.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Kate Holton, Elizabeth Piper and Michael Holden in London; Richard Lough in Paris, Padraic Halpin in Dublin, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Peter Graff, Kevin Liffey