John­son’s Brexit plan is again stymied

In prime min­is­ter’s lat­est de­feat, law­mak­ers re­ject his call for a new elec­tion

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY GRIFF WITTE, KARLA ADAM AND AMANDA FER­GU­SON

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son’s dreams of an elec­tion that would clear his path to Brexit by the end of Oc­to­ber were de­ci­sively dashed af­ter mid­night Tues­day morn­ing, leav­ing him with no ob­vi­ous means of mak­ing good on his vow of a “do or die” exit from the Euro­pean Union.

The lat­est ob­sta­cle to John­son’s plans came in the form of yet an­other de­feat in the House of Com­mons, where the on­ceswag­ger­ing prime min­is­ter has lost every key vote of his young premier­ship.

Tues­day was the sec­ond time in as many weeks that John­son had asked for Par­lia­ment to al­low a fresh elec­tion, only to be re­buffed by a uni­fied op­po­si­tion.

“Why are they con­niv­ing to de­lay Brexit?” John­son taunted as a rowdy de­bate kicked off Mon­day night, with his fel­low Tories cheer­ing him on. “The only pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is they fear we will win.”

“We’re ea­ger for an elec­tion,” coun­tered Jeremy Cor­byn, leader of the op­po­si­tion Labour Party. “But as keen as we are, we are not pre­pared to risk in­flict­ing the dis­as­ter of no deal” on the Bri­tish public. Op­po­si­tion lead­ers have re­peat­edly said that John­son’s elec­tion of­fer is “a trap” in­tended to get a back door to no deal.

Law­mak­ers be­gan de­bat­ing the issue hours af­ter Speaker John Ber­cow sur­prised his col

leagues by an­nounc­ing he would step aside within weeks. The speaker has be­come a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure in a coun­try divided sharply along Brexit lines.

With Par­lia­ment sus­pended for the next five weeks, Tues­day’s de­feat leaves John­son with vir­tu­ally no chance of get­ting a fresh vote be­fore Oct. 31, the dead­line by which Britain is due to leave the E.U.

The prime min­is­ter had hoped an elec­tion could re­store the ma­jor­ity he lost last week through a com­bi­na­tion of de­fec­tions and ejec­tions and give him a free hand to follow through on his prom­ise to lead Britain out of the E.U. — even if there’s no deal with Euro­pean lead­ers.

In­stead, John­son is in a bind: He has in­sisted he will not ask the E.U. for an ex­ten­sion — he said last week that he would “rather be dead in a ditch.” But a law passed by rebel law­mak­ers re­quires him to seek one if there’s still no deal by Oct. 19.

Hard-line Brex­i­teers have sug­gested, and John­son crit­ics have warned, that the prime min­is­ter could defy the law. John­son him­self has refused to say he will com­ply. There is no mod­ern prece­dent for a Bri­tish leader will­fully ig­nor­ing an act of Par­lia­ment. To do so would risk be­ing held in con­tempt of court — and put in jail. Top min­is­ters in­sist that will not hap­pen.

An­a­lysts say John­son’s best hope may be to strike a slightly im­proved deal with the E.U. Euro­pean lead­ers, how­ever, ap­pear in no mood to give ground, and John­son may strug­gle to get any agree­ment passed in Par­lia­ment even if they do.

The sud­den nar­row­ing of John­son’s op­tions represents a re­mark­able turn of events for a prime min­is­ter who, less than two weeks ago, ap­peared to con­trol his own destiny — and the fate of Brexit.

As sum­mer waned, he an­nounced a plan to sus­pend Par­lia­ment for much of Sep­tem­ber and half of Oc­to­ber, leav­ing law­mak­ers with lit­tle time — per­haps not enough, some the­o­rized — to block his plans to lead Britain over the cliff of a no-deal Brexit if no agree­ment could be reached.

But the for­merly frac­tious op­po­si­tion quickly uni­fied to dis­rupt his plans. When he of­fered an elec­tion just two years af­ter the last one — some­thing op­po­si­tion lead­ers had re­peat­edly de­manded — they turned him down. Along the way, John­son shed al­lies, in­clud­ing his own brother, who re­signed from the cab­i­net.

A se­ries of halt­ing public per­for­mances added to the sense that John­son, in of­fice since only late July, had al­ready be­gun down the path of his two pre­de­ces­sors, David Cameron and Theresa May, who were both ca­su­al­ties of treach­er­ous Brexit pol­i­tics.

“It’s pos­si­ble that every sin­gle de­feat and every awk­ward speech and all the dif­fi­cul­ties were part of some master plan to pro­duce a fu­ture elec­tion vic­tory,” said Tony Travers, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the London School of Eco­nomics. “But if you stand back and look at what’s go­ing on, they have, to a de­gree, lost con­trol of events.”

Whether he can re­gain that con­trol could hinge on his deal­ings with Europe in the com­ing weeks.

Ear­lier on Mon­day, John­son had struck a notably con­cil­ia­tory tone dur­ing a visit to Dublin — an in­di­ca­tion, per­haps, that the prime min­is­ter knows his best hope for es­cap­ing his Brexit quag­mire lies with his Euro­pean coun­ter­parts, who are ea­ger to avoid a chaotic Bri­tish exit.

Stand­ing be­side Ir­ish Prime Min­is­ter Leo Varad­kar, John­son in­sisted again that Britain “will come out on Oc­to­ber 31.” But he also cited a clear pref­er­ence for a deal to man­age the with­drawal and said there is still plenty of time to come to terms be­fore E.U. lead­ers meet for a sum­mit Oct. 17-18.

“There is a way for­ward,” he said. “If we re­ally fo­cus, I think we can make a huge amount of progress.”

He de­clined, how­ever, to spec­ify new pro­pos­als. And Varad­kar main­tained that he had not seen any.

The Ir­ish leader also sav­aged a fa­vorite John­son talk­ing point, in­sist­ing that a Bri­tish exit with­out a deal would lead only to more rounds of ne­go­ti­a­tion — not to an end to Britain’s Brexit agony.

“There is no such thing as a clean break,” Varad­kar said as John­son gri­maced.

A joint state­ment fol­low­ing the news con­fer­ence and a sub­se­quent hour of meet­ings said that “common ground was es­tab­lished in some ar­eas al­though sig­nif­i­cant gaps re­main.”

The ques­tion of how to han­dle the bor­der be­tween North­ern Ire­land, which is part of the United King­dom, and the Repub­lic of Ire­land, which will re­main a mem­ber of the E.U., has be­dev­iled Britain’s Brexit plans from the start — and will be key to talks in the com­ing weeks.

Both the Bri­tish and Ir­ish gov­ern­ments say they don’t want a hard bor­der, com­plete with check­points and bar­ri­ers, di­vid­ing the is­land. But the Ir­ish, and the E.U., have in­sisted on a “back­stop” that would in ef­fect keep Britain in the E.U.’s cus­toms union un­til a so­lu­tion can be found that al­lows for two trad­ing sys­tems to ex­ist side by side.

John­son has re­jected such an ar­range­ment, say­ing it would keep Britain from strik­ing deals with other coun­tries, such as the United States, and reap­ing the benefits of life out­side the E.U.

If there are benefits to be had, they re­main stub­bornly elu­sive three years af­ter a ma­jor­ity of Bri­tons voted in a ref­er­en­dum to exit the E.U.

With the coun­try still po­lar­ized along Brexit lines, polls show John­son’s Con­ser­va­tives with a sig­nif­i­cant lead over the op­po­si­tion Labour Party. When­ever an elec­tion comes — an­a­lysts say Novem­ber is now likely — the prime min­is­ter is ex­pected to play on frus­tra­tion among pro-Brexit vot­ers who blame Cor­byn and other op­po­si­tion lead­ers for the coun­try’s in­abil­ity to get out.

But with mul­ti­ple choices for both the pro- and anti-E.U. sides on the bal­lot, any elec­tion is highly un­pre­dictable.

Just how po­lar­ized Britain has be­come was ev­i­dent Mon­day af­ter­noon with the sur­prise an­nounce­ment by Ber­cow, the col­or­ful and con­tro­ver­sial speaker of the House of Com­mons, that he would leave his post by the end of Oc­to­ber.

Known for his en­thu­si­as­tic shout­ing of “Or­der! Or­der!” his loud ties and his soar­ing or­a­tory, Ber­cow is a cult fig­ure in the Brexit drama.

He is also a stal­wart de­fender of par­lia­men­tary power, one who used his tra­di­tion­ally low-key and non­par­ti­san role to en­sure that law­mak­ers could ef­fec­tively check ex­ec­u­tive power at a time when crit­ics say John­son is flout­ing im­por­tant con­ven­tions of the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

That stance was sig­nif­i­cant last week, with Ber­cow giv­ing law­mak­ers the chance to block John­son’s at­tempts to take Britain out of the E.U. with­out a deal.

Most law­mak­ers gave Ber­cow a stand­ing ova­tion on Mon­day — a rare dis­play on the House floor. But many hard-line Brex­i­teers, who be­lieve Ber­cow is bi­ased to­ward the pro-E. U. camp and had vowed to try to de­feat him in the next elec­tion, stayed seated.

In an emo­tional farewell address, with his wife look­ing on from the gallery, Ber­cow pleaded for an in­sti­tu­tion that is tak­ing heavy abuse as frus­tra­tion with Britain’s in­ter­minable E.U. exit builds — and is likely to take more.

“We de­grade this Par­lia­ment at our peril,” he said.

ISABEL INFANTES/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

An anti-Brexit demon­stra­tor in­flates bal­loons dec­o­rated with the Euro­pean Union flag out­side Par­lia­ment in London. A law re­quires Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son to seek an ex­ten­sion from the E.U. if there’s no Brexit agree­ment by Oct. 19. He has said he would “rather be dead in a ditch.”

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