Boris Johnson’s Election Bid Casts Doubt Over EU Brexit Delay

Jessica Shankleman

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Boris Johnson’s efforts to break three years of gridlock in the U.K. Parliament with another election were thrown into doubt after his main opponent demanded he rule out a no-deal Brexit first.

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn said Thursday that his decision on backing the prime minister’s bid for an election depends on the length of a Brexit extension granted by the European Union.

The prime minister needs Corbyn’s support for an early election in order to get the two-thirds majority in Parliament required for it to take place. Johnson earlier Thursday had announced that a motion for a Dec. 12 general election would be put to MPs for a vote Monday.

The latest standoff in Westminster complicated the calculus for EU diplomats meeting in Brussels on Friday morning. They were due to decide the length of a third Brexit extension, but now don’t want to be seen taking sides in a British political matter, according to people familiar with discussions.

With just six days before the U.K. is scheduled to leave the bloc and no deal yet agreed, there’s a slim chance Johnson could still push through his legislation again after winning broad support in Parliament for his plans Tuesday night.

Johnson is concerned that without an election, scrutiny of his bill could drag out to fill a full three-month Brexit extension, becoming unacceptable to him if opponents succeed in amending it. Since becoming prime minister three months ago, he’s twice failed to win the two-thirds majority needed in the Commons for an early national vote.

If MPs once again reject his plan, Johnson will ditch his Brexit bill and campaign relentlessly for an election, which he sees as the only way to break the impasse, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid on Friday backed that message up.

“We’re going to keep trying for a general election,” he told ITV when asked what the government will do if it loses Monday’s vote. “It is important that we have a functioning parliament. This is a zombie Parliament. It is completely dysfunctional. It is not only stopping Brexit, but it is stopping so much else that should be going on.”

The chancellor told the BBC that the government has to accept Brexit won’t now happen on Oct. 31. In his ITV interview, he said “the most likely outcome” is that the EU grants the 3-month delay to Brexit that Parliament forced Johnson to request.

Some MPs may question the threat to ditch the Brexit bill, after Johnson backtracked on a similar pledge earlier this week. Johnson only put his legislation on hold after MPs rejected his accelerated timetable for debating it, even though hours before he’d threatened to pull the bill if they voted against him.

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“It is our duty to end this nightmare and provide the country with a solution as soon as we reasonably can,” Johnson said in a letter to Corbyn, appealing for his MPs to back an election. “These repeated delays have been bad for the economy, bad for businesses, and bad for millions of people trying to plan their futures.”

In response, Corbyn said he’d wait and see what the EU offered in the form of an extension on Friday. That caused a Catch-22 situation in Brussels, where diplomats said they wanted more clarity from the U.K. before agreeing on any potential extension and may wait until Monday or Tuesday before taking a decision.

Labour’s home affairs spokeswoman, Diane Abbott told BBC radio on Friday that Johnson is “playing games,” and that offers from the prime minister “are not worth the paper they’re written on.” She said the party is prepared for an election -- and has both the money and the will to fight one.

But first, the party needs to be “absolutely certain” Britain can’t crash out of the EU without a deal,” Abbott said. “We’d want to have an explicit commitment that no-deal is off the table, and that might mean further legislation in Parliament.”

(Updates with comments from Javid, Abbott, starting in seventh paragraph.)

--With assistance from Ian Wishart, Nikos Chrysoloras, Alex Morales and Tiago Ramos Alfaro.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica Shankleman in London at jshankleman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Robert Jameson, Stuart Biggs

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