Brexit Fight Raises Prospect of New U.K. Election

Robert Hutton and Tim Ross
Brexit Fight Raises Prospect of New U.K. Election

(Bloomberg) -- Follow @Brexit, sign up to our Brexit Bulletin, and tell us your Brexit story. 

Britain faces its third election in just over four years after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would rather risk losing office than have his negotiations with the European Union undermined.

In a dramatic ultimatum, Johnson will try to trigger a snap vote on Oct. 14 if he loses a crunch vote in Parliament on Tuesday evening.

It’s the culmination of a face-off between a combative new leader, who argues that threatening to walk away from talks with the EU gives him leverage, and a majority of members of parliament convinced that Britain crashing out of the bloc without any agreements would cause vast economic harm.

The pound fell below $1.20 early Tuesday for the first time since January 2017.

More than three years after the referendum, Britain is still tearing itself apart over Brexit, an all-consuming quest that has poisoned the political climate, confused and alienated voters, and tested relations with once-close European allies.

Former Cabinet minister Justine Greening, who represents the Remain-supporting district of Putney in southwest London, said she would not stand for the Conservatives at any upcoming election, arguing the party doesn’t reflect the concerns of voters fretting about the risks of a no-deal exit.

‘Lose-Lose’

“I don’t believe the Conservative Party will offer people a sensible choice at the next election,” Greening told BBC radio Tuesday. “Boris Johnson is going to offer people a general election that faces them with a choice between a no-deal or Jeremy Corbyn. That is a lose-lose general election for Britain.”

Meanwhile in Parliament, the stakes keep getting higher and the process ever more murky.

The MPs who oppose a no-deal Brexit -- including senior members of his own Conservative Party -- will try to seize control of parliamentary business on Tuesday with the aim of passing legislation that would force Johnson to delay Brexit in the event of no deal.

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond told BBC Radio the rebels “have the numbers” to defeat the government. He attacked Johnson’s administration for its aggressive tactics, dubbing his senior adviser Dominic Cummings an “entryist” who doesn’t care about the Conservative Party.

Hammond also said no negotiations are currently taking place between the government and the EU.

Election Plan

Johnson told an emergency Cabinet meeting on Monday that if the rebels win, he’ll respond by seeking a vote the next day to hold a general election.

“I want everybody to know there are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay,” he said in a hastily arranged statement outside his office. “Let’s let our negotiators get on with their work.”

Even so, Hammond said he wouldn’t vote for an election until Parliament has passed its short bill allowing for an extension. Rebel Dominic Grieve also said Tuesday he would abstain on such a vote. That’s because they’re worried that Johnson could dissolve Parliament for the election, and then delay polling day until after Brexit on Oct. 31.

The menace reflects Johnson’s do-or-die approach to getting Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31. This is also not his first attempt to stop Parliament from tying his hands.

Full-Blown Rebellion

Last week he asked the Queen to stop Parliament from meeting for a month. That galvanized his opponents, who realized they had little time to act, so over the weekend the government warned potential Tory rebels that they’d be expelled if they voted against Johnson. That too seems to have failed, as several Tory rebels announced they were unmoved by the threat.

It’s not clear whether Johnson will be able to follow his words with actions. To get an election, he needs two-thirds of MPs to vote for one -- 434 of them. He has only 311 -- even fewer if he starts throwing out Tories.

In theory, making up the difference should be straightforward: The opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been asking for an election since he lost the last one narrowly. His close ally, John McDonnell, has repeatedly said “bring it on” in the past week. But many Labour MPs are ambivalent about it.

Labour’s opposition attorney general Shami Chakrabarti told BBC Radio on Tuesday that it’s a matter of “sequencing,” and that the party favors legislating against a no-deal Brexit before voting for an election.

Election Plans

If the election did go ahead, Johnson would fight it arguing that he should be given a mandate to deliver Brexit, that he could take to the EU council on Oct. 17. Polls currently put the Conservative Party ahead, and Johnson is an accomplished campaigner and the most famous politician in the country.

But uncertain factors include the rise of the Brexit Party, which might siphon off Tory votes, and the departure of Conservative votes in urban areas to anti-Brexit parties. Tory seats in Scotland would also be at risk. And if Johnson lost, he would become the shortest-serving prime minister in British history.

The rebel bill, published Monday night, would require Johnson to extend exit day to Jan. 31, if by Oct. 19 he hasn’t either reached a deal with the EU that’s approved by Parliament or secured Parliament’s agreement for leaving the bloc with no deal. It’s drafted to limit Johnson’s options.

The prime minister, however, was adamant that he wouldn’t be constrained. “We’re leaving on 31 October, no ifs or buts,” he said.

(Updates with Hammond comment in ninth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson, Alex Morales and Jessica Shankleman.

To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Hutton in London at rhutton1@bloomberg.net;Tim Ross in London at tross54@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Flavia Krause-Jackson, Stuart Biggs

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.