British Parliament's next Brexit brawl: When to hold elections

Pro-Brexit demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, on Sept 5, 2019.
Pro-Brexit demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, on Sept 5, 2019.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - As a law to prevent a no-deal Brexit hurtled towards passage on Thursday (Sept 5), British lawmakers began drawing the battle lines for their next fight: when to hold a general election that is now inevitable.

Opposition lawmakers have so far blocked Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan for a mid-October election, but the government said on Thursday that it would hold another parliamentary vote on an early election next Monday.

That set up a significant clash over when British voters will get to decide who should handle Britain's departure from the European Union, with opposition Labour lawmakers haggling over what stage of the Brexit process gives them the best chance of wrenching control from Mr Johnson's enfeebled government.

Labour will hold talks with other opposition parties to discuss its support, and a possible date, for a general election, its foreign affairs spokeswoman said on Friday.

Mr Johnson is pushing for an election on Oct 15, two weeks before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU, though opposition parties are debating which date they would accept.

“We need to be absolutely sure that we are not going to end up in a situation where the general election is used as a distraction whilst they (the government) by some cunning wheeze bounce us out of the European Union without a deal,” Ms Emily Thornberry told BBC radio.

Asked what date Labour would support, she said: “These are things which are subject to discussions at the moment, not just within my party, but with other parties as well.”

Mr Johnson sees an election as the only way to create a stable majority for his Conservative Party in Parliament and secure a mandate for pulling Britain out of the European Union by Oct 31, with or without a deal governing future relations.

"I don't want an election at all, but frankly I cannot see any other way," he said on Thursday during a speech in northern England promoting a plan to hire more police officers.

"The only way to get this thing moving is to make that decision."

To keep alive the possibility of pulling Britain out of the EU by Oct 31, Mr Johnson wants to hold the election as quickly as possible.


But opposition lawmakers are reluctant to let him schedule the election on his terms. Some of them reason that postponing a vote until November would force Mr Johnson to abide by a law blocking a no-deal Brexit and to ask Brussels for a delay, thereby breaking the central promise of his tenure.

Mr Johnson said on Thursday that he "would rather be dead in a ditch" than ask for that delay.

The Prime Minister, fresh off purging his party of 21 of its most senior lawmakers for defying his government, received an even more personal blow to his authority on Thursday when his younger brother, Jo Johnson, resigned from Parliament, suggesting that working in the Prime Minister's Cabinet was no longer in "the national interest".

He was also fending off calls from senior ministers in his own Cabinet to restore those 21 lawmakers to the party.

Despite his battering from all sides this week, Mr Johnson appeared committed to putting his vaunted campaigning skills to the test.

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, sitting notably upright after a furore over his slouch this week, said that Parliament would hold another vote for an early election on Monday. That is the same day the Bill stopping a no-deal Brexit is expected to receive royal assent and become law.

The early-election vote, requiring two-thirds of lawmakers to pass, will once again depend on the support of opposition lawmakers, and on Thursday, it remained unclear what side they would take.

Mr Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, has said repeatedly that he will not agree to an election until a law stopping a no-deal Brexit is on the books. That way, Mr Johnson would be denied the wiggle room to, say, schedule an election after Oct 31 and let Britain crash out of the EU without a deal.

Other Labour lawmakers have gone further than Mr Corbyn and said an election should not be held until after the current departure date of Oct 31 passes.

They believe that would make Mr Johnson vulnerable to attacks from right-wing parties that have insisted that he not allow any delay to Brexit. They also hope a later election would let the shine off Mr Johnson's short time in office, already fading this week, disappear completely among voters.


His government remained under attack on Thursday for the damage that could follow a no-deal Brexit, especially shortages of crucial medicines. A prominent neurologist, Dr David Nicholl, who has studied the availability of epilepsy and neurology drugs for the government, challenged Mr Rees-Mogg this week to say how many people he would accept dying because of a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Rees-Mogg responded in the House of Commons on Thursday by comparing Dr Nicholl to a disgraced doctor who promoted false anti-vaccine claims. The comment drew gasps from opposition lawmakers and rebukes from prominent British doctors, and Mr Johnson's office later said "the prime minister does not share this view".

Many Conservatives were also still stewing over Mr Johnson's decision to purge the party of lawmakers who defied his threats and voted to stop a no-deal Brexit, among them Tory stalwarts like Mr Ken Clarke, a lawmaker since 1970, and Mr Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Mr Johnson's hero, Winston Churchill, who has served in Parliament for 37 years.

And Mr Johnson's first boisterous debates in the House of Commons have not helped his cause. Analysts have long believed his improvisational style and loose grip of the facts would serve him poorly at the despatch box, where prime ministers field questions from the opposition, but critics said he looked particularly weak at times this week.

True to form for a politician known to put his foot in his mouth, Mr Johnson lashed out amid a barrage of attacks from the opposition, appearing at one point to say to Mr Corbyn: "Call an election, you great big girl's blouse." His opponents quickly called the comment sexist and unbecoming of a prime minister.

Some members of the Labour Party believe Mr Johnson has already hurt his election chances with early missteps, along with his provocative decision to shut down Parliament for five weeks.

Those lawmakers, sanguine about the party's chances despite poor poll numbers, prefer a mid-October election, reasoning that the best way to guarantee that Britain does not leave the bloc without a deal is to kick Mr Johnson out of office as soon as possible.

Mr John McDonnell, a senior Labour lawmaker who speaks for the opposition on finance matters, said in a radio interview on Thursday that his party was still considering how to lock in an election date that eliminated the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

Opposition lawmakers in favour of the Bill stopping a no-deal Brexit had feared that the House of Lords, an unelected body that acts as upper house of Parliament, could filibuster its passage. But after hours of debate, allies of Mr Johnson in the House of Lords relented early on Thursday, allowing the Bill to advance through the chamber by the end of the week.