UK lawmakers face pressure to break Brexit impasse

PM Johnson says Parliament holding country hostage, wants backing for snap elections

LONDON • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government yesterday stepped up pressure on lawmakers to back his bid to hold an early election and break the Brexit impasse, saying the country was being held "hostage" by Parliament.

But with the main opposition Labour Party waiting for the European Union to grant a Brexit delay and two other parties launching their own bid for an even earlier election, the government's bid so far looks set to fail.

Britain is due to leave the EU this Thursday, but despite the government arguing this is still the legal default date, few expect Mr Johnson to meet his "do or die" promise to deliver Brexit on Oct 31, after the bloc agreed to another delay.

More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, the divided country and its Parliament are still debating over how, when and even if Brexit should happen.

All political parties agree an election is needed to break the stand-off over Brexit, but do not see eye-to-eye on its timing.

For many lawmakers, Mr Johnson's attempt to set the terms of a new election raises concerns that he might renege. But a Downing Street office source said he would do all he can to force an election to "get Brexit done", including considering options offered by other opposition parties.

"Parliament cannot hold the country hostage any longer," Mr Johnson said late last Saturday. "Millions of businesses and people cannot plan their futures, this paralysis is causing real damage and the country must move on in 2020."

Culture Minister Nicky Morgan doubled down on the message yesterday, warning lawmakers that Oct 31 was still "the default leaving date". "So that should focus minds," she told Sky News.


Last week, Mr Johnson called for a general election on Dec 12, offering Parliament until Nov 6 to ratify his Brexit deal - the first time he had conceded he would not meet his Oct 31 deadline. It was his third attempt to get the required backing in Parliament, where he needs the support of two-thirds of its 650 lawmakers for a new poll.

The easiest path for the governing Conservatives would be if the Prime Minister's move was supported by the Labour Party, which so far has said it needs to see what kind of delay the EU would offer before making a decision.

The EU has agreed there should be an extension but has set no departure date, saying it would wait to see how Parliament voted on Mr Johnson's call for an early election.

"Of course we want a general election but we've got to make sure that we get those absolute reassurances that Boris Johnson won't use a general election and the campaign to crash us out of the European Union with a disastrous no-deal Brexit," said Labour's health policy chief Jon Ashworth.

"That is what we're waiting for."

Yesterday, another Downing Street source gave a veiled warning to Labour lawmakers, saying the government would consider all options, including those proposed by other opposition parties, if Labour opposed "being held to account by the people yet again".

That could suggest the government may consider backing a move by two other opposition parties, the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats, which have written to European Council head Donald Tusk to ask for a delay until Jan 31. They want a new poll on Dec 9.

Earlier, Mrs Morgan and Mr Ashworth called the move a stunt, putting into question whether the two parties' alternative bid could be passed by Parliament.

With the government looking likely to lose its early election vote today, former finance minister Philip Hammond had a word of warning for the Prime Minister.

"I shall be voting against him. This is not the time to be holding a general election, it is a time for cool heads and grown-up government," Mr Hammond told Sky News.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2019, with the headline 'UK lawmakers face pressure to break Brexit impasse'. Print Edition | Subscribe