Delay Brexit? I'd rather be dead in a ditch, says British PM Boris Johnson

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a speech during a visit to West Yorkshire, England.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a speech during a visit to West Yorkshire, England.PHOTO: PA WIRE/DPA

WAKEFIELD, ENGLAND (DPA, REUTERS) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday (Sept 5) that he would “rather be dead” than ask Brussels for a further delay to Brexit, which opposition lawmakers are trying to force him to do under a Bill to block Britain from leaving the European Union without a deal on Oct 31.

“I’d rather be dead in a ditch,” Mr Johnson told reporters when asked about the requirement of the no-deal Brexit Bill, which he strongly opposes.

He accused opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of “making it impossible for the people of this country to have an election”, in televised remarks at a police college that Downing Street said were aimed at voters.

“We want an election on Oct 15. Let’s crack on with it,” Mr Johnson said.

Labour opposed Mr Johnson’s parliamentary motion calling for an election on Wednesday, meaning the government failed to win the required two-thirds majority.

Mr Corbyn has said he will consider an election only once the Bill stopping no-deal Brexit is enshrined in law.

Mr Johnson’s plan to kick off what is in effect an election campaign casting Parliament as the enemy of Brexit was overshadowed on Thursday when his younger brother quit the government, citing the national interest.  

As the United Kingdom spins towards an election, Brexit remains up in the air more than three years after Britons voted to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum.

 
 
 
 

Options range from a turbulent “no-deal” exit to abandoning the whole endeavour.  

Ahead of a speech in Wakefield, northern England, where Mr Johnson effectively began an informal election campaign, his own brother, Jo, resigned as a junior business minister and said he was stepping down as a lawmaker for their Conservative Party.

“In recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest – it’s an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles,” he tweeted.

The 47-year-old, who campaigned for Britain to remain a member of the EU in the 2016 referendum while his older brother was the face of Vote Leave, has been in Parliament since 2010, serving in several ministerial roles.

The move comes in a frenetic week for the premier, who said his brother had been “a brilliant, talented minister and a fantastic MP”, and that the decision would not have been easy.

After wresting control of the Lower House of Parliament on Wednesday, an alliance of opposition parties and rebels expelled from the Conservative Party voted to force Mr Boris Johnson to seek a three-month delay to Brexit rather than leaving without a deal on Oct 31, the date now set in law.

'TRUST THE PEOPLE'

Since taking office in July, Mr Johnson has tried to corral the Conservative Party, which is openly fighting over Brexit, behind his strategy of leaving the EU on Oct 31 with or without a deal.

On Tuesday, he expelled 21 Conservative lawmakers from the party for failing to back his strategy, including Winston Churchill’s grandson and two former finance ministers.

Behind the sound and fury of the immediate crisis, an election now beckons for a polarised country. The main choices on offer are Mr Johnson’s insistence on leaving the EU on Oct 31, come what may, and Labour leader Corbyn’s hard-left socialist vision, coupled with a promise of a fresh referendum with an option to stay in the EU.

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, who manages government business in the House of Commons, said Parliament would be asked again on Monday, after the blocking Bill becomes law, to approve a snap election.

On Wednesday, lawmakers rejected Mr Johnson’s request for an Oct 15 election.  

The Brexit crisis has for three years overshadowed EU affairs, eroded Britain’s reputation as a stable pillar of the West and caused the sterling to lunge back and forth in line with the probability of a “no-deal” exit.  

Asked if Brexit would happen on Oct 31, Mr Johnson’s belligerent senior adviser Dominic Cummings, a focus of many departing Conservative lawmakers’ grievances, told Reuters: “Trust the people.”

ELECTION LOOMS

Opposition parties say they are in favour of an election in principle, but are debating whether or not to accept Mr Johnson’s proposed date. Mr Johnson has accused Mr Corbyn of cowardice for not facilitating a snap election.  

At a meeting with United States Vice-President Mike Pence in Downing Street on Thursday, Mr Johnson quipped: “We’re not too keen on your chlorinated chicken – we have a gigantic chlorinated chicken of our own here on the opposition benches.”

The prospect that Britain will have to accept imports of chlorine-washed chicken from the US in any trade deal between the two has become a symbol of what remainers say will be a weak negotiating position after Brexit.

Mr Pence, who laughed, said the US supported Britain’s decision to leave the EU.  

The sense that the prospect of a “no-deal” exit had receded pushed the pound 1.4 per cent higher on Wednesday, and it surged to a five-week high on Thursday, ending at US$1.2317 (S$1.70). UBS Global Wealth Management said the sterling could rally to US$1.30 if Brexit was delayed until January 2020 and an election was held after October.

An election before Brexit would allow Mr Johnson, if he wins, to repeal the blocking Bill. The law will pass the Upper House, the Lords, by Friday evening.

Diplomats said an election campaign would halt any Brexit talks with the EU, and expressed frustration with the turmoil in British politics at such an important juncture in European history.

In particular, they said London had yet to make any meaningful proposals to address Mr Johnson’s complaints about the divorce settlement that his predecessor Theresa May agreed with the EU but failed to get through Parliament at home.  

“The UK side continues to produce chaos and it is very hard to predict anything,” said one EU diplomat.