(CN) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered his first major setback Tuesday when a raucous Parliament voted against allowing him to lead the United Kingdom out of the European Union without a deal on Halloween.
On Tuesday evening, the House of Commons voted 328-301 against Johnson’s government. The vote was a clear signal that Johnson’s government is wobbly at best and that he may now seek to trigger new elections.
Johnson said he would call for elections if Parliament voted on Wednesday to push forward with a bill to stop a no-deal Brexit. Tuesday’s vote was on a motion to allow that bill to proceed.
The defeat was one of the quickest suffered by a new British government, experts said. Johnson became prime minister at the end of July on a promise to leave the EU “do or die” on Oct. 31, and since then he had faced Parliament only once before Tuesday when the House returned from a summer recess.
After the vote was announced, a member of Parliament shouted out: “Not a good start Boris!”
Twenty-one Tory parliamentarians, including several long-time and stalwart members like Ken Clarke and Winston Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, voted for the motion even though they were warned about being pushed out of the party if they voted against Johnson.
Commentators say Johnson’s premiership poses an existential threat to the Tories, who are bitterly divided between those who see advantages to staying in the EU and those see the EU as a faceless superstate of bureaucrats undermining British law and society.
After the defeat, Johnson told the House the vote against him meant that “Parliament was on the brink of wrecking any deal we might be able to strike with Brussels.”
Johnson insists he can get the EU to change its stance on a crucial sticking point over the future status of Northern Ireland. He argues his bargaining powers are strengthened by threatening to leave the EU without a deal.
The EU, though, says it is not willing to renegotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement it hammered out with former Prime Minister Theresa May. Under that deal, Northern Ireland is to stay closely aligned with the EU unless a future trade agreement can be worked out.
But his critics charge that Johnson is feigning when he talks about striking a new deal and that he has no chance of winning concessions from the EU. Instead, they argue, Johnson is really bent on leaving without a deal and doing so by running down the clock.
The bill Parliament is taking up Wednesday proposes to force Johnson to ask for Brexit to be delayed until Jan. 31 unless Parliament has approved a new deal or voted in favor of leaving the EU without a deal, which a majority in Parliament is against. As it stands now, the U.K. is set to leave the EU on Oct. 31.
After his defeat, Johnson said his government would seek a new election if the no-deal Brexit bill is passed. Still, it is far from certain that Parliament will agree to hold a snap election before Oct. 31. The Labour Party, the main opposition party, is eager to hold an election but not on a timetable set by Johnson.
“I don’t want an election, the public don’t want an election,” Johnson said. “But if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 to sort this out and take this country forward.”
Oct. 17 is when European leaders meet at a summit to discuss Brexit.
Johnson then moved into campaign mode and waged his finger at Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, and lashed out at him. Corbyn is despised by many Tory members who cast him as a radical socialist who would undermine Britain and keep it tied to the EU indefinitely if he became prime minister.
“He will accept whatever Brussels demands,” Johnson said as he pointed a finger at Corbyn sitting across from him, “and we will have years more of arguments over Brexit.”
“By contrast,” he added, “if I go to Brussels, I will go for a deal and I believe I will get a deal.” He added that if there is no deal to be had, he would take the U.K. out of the EU on Oct. 31.
Corbyn replied that Tuesday’s vote again demonstrated that Parliament is opposed to a no-deal exit.
“There is no consent in this Parliament to leave the European Union without a deal,” Corbyn said. “There is no majority for no deal in the country.”
Johnson’s day did not start out well. Earlier in the House of Commons, as he was updating Parliament about the recent G7 summit, a Tory member dramatically crossed the chamber and then sat down among the members of the Liberal Democrats.
With the defection of former Tory Phillip Lee to the Liberal Democrats, Johnson’s government effectively lost its majority in Parliament. Lee was among a group of rebel Conservatives who were ready to vote against Johnson and join opposition parties on Tuesday evening.
“I haven’t left my party, my party has left me. My values have remained the same,” Lee said afterwards in explaining his decision to switch parties to Sky News television. The Liberal Democrats favor the U.K. remaining in the EU.
And that proved to be just the start of a fiery session of Parliament that led up to the evening vote. Johnson at times fiercely attacked Corbyn, who he characterized as doing the EU’s bidding.
“There is only one way to describe this bill,” Johnson said of the measure to stop a no-deal Brexit. “It is Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill. It means running up the white flag.”
In reply, Corbyn shot back that Europe was not the enemy. “We’re not surrendering because we are at war with Europe. They are surely our partners.”
Efforts to stop Britain from exiting the EU without a deal are playing out in court as well after Johnson got the queen to suspend Parliament for nearly five weeks between September and Oct. 14. In Edinburgh, lawyers for 75 parliamentarians opposed to Brexit asked a judge Tuesday to halt the suspension. Courts in Belfast and London are also grappling with the same legal questions.
Johnson’s opponents say his sidelining of Parliament was a cynical maneuver to ease the country’s exit from the EU without a deal and to curtail debate.
Johnson and other pro-Brexit members of the Tory party argue that Britain must leave the EU on Oct. 31, even if that means doing so without first spelling out the terms of the divorce in a deal. Johnson took over the premiership after Parliament rejected the wide-ranging deal May struck with the EU. Under that deal, the U.K. and the EU would maintain close ties.
Though May’s deal fractured Parliament, economists warn that leaving without a deal could lead to economic disaster. Under such a scenario, there are concerns that there could be food and medicine shortages, widespread disruption to commerce, frayed political relationships with Europe, and the possibility of a return to border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which in turn could threaten peace in the volatile region.
Crucially, May and the EU agreed that Northern Ireland would remain closely aligned with the EU’s rules, laws and customs in the event that a future trade agreement cannot be worked out between the U.K. and the EU.
Keeping Northern Ireland aligned to the EU is seen as critical to ensure that a border is not erected between Northern Ireland and Ireland, thus allowing the free flow of commerce and people to continue without disruption.
The EU has said it will not change its position on the Northern Irish border. British media reported that negotiations between Johnson and the EU over the border were not progressing well.
Johnson and others who want Britain to make a clean break with the EU warn that keeping Northern Ireland aligned to the EU would in turn leave the rest of the U.K. also closely tied to the EU. They argue that such an arrangement betrays the will of the 52% of voters who backed leaving the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Opponents, though, say the dilemma and impasse over Brexit is so bad that the U.K. should hold a second referendum to determine the country’s future. They argue that voters cast ballots in the referendum not fully aware of what leaving the EU would mean and that now, after more than three years of debate, voters are better informed.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)