LONDON — Despite a string of stinging defeats in Parliament, and the painful, public resignation of his own brother, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday continued his passionate push for an early general election he hopes would help him deliver Brexit by Oct. 31.
Johnson cast his quest to bust Britain out of the European Union in defiant and populist terms, saying he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than seek any further delays to Brexit.
He said he didn’t want to see “the “powers of the British people handed over to Brussels, so we can be kept incarcerated in the E.U.” That echoed the populist — and successful — appeal to British voters to “take back control” of Britain that led to the passage of Brexit in a 2016 national referendum.
Still, the tumult of the past week appeared to be taking a toll on Johnson, who was unusually halting and uncertain as he spoke before a group of police cadets in Yorkshire. Normally a gifted and confident orator, Johnson squinted awkwardly into the bright sunshine. He stumbled as he tried to recite the British equivalent of the Miranda rights to the cadets, who know the lines well.
That may have been especially understandable on a day he suffered the personal blow of having his younger brother, Jo Johnson, resign as a member of Parliament and government minister.
“In recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest — it’s an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles as MP & Minister,” Jo Johnson tweeted, using the hashtag #overandout.
Jo Johnson voted against Brexit in the 2016 referendum, and his ideological disagreements with his brother are well known. But his resignation was unexpected and underscored the depth of divisions over Brexit and of the prime minister’s political problems.
“Jo doesn’t agree with me about the European Union. It’s an issue that divides families and divides everybody,” Boris Johnson said in Yorkshire, calling his brother a “fantastic guy” and noting he supported the government’s efforts to increase spending on education, hospitals and public safety.
Asked by a reporter why people should trust him to act in the national interest when his brother doesn’t, the prime minister said: “People disagree about the E.U., but the way to unite the country, I’m afraid, is to get this thing done. That is the reality. The longer this goes on, the more dither and delay we have from Parliament . . . the worse this thing will be.”
Asked if he would be the next Johnson to resign, the prime minister didn’t answer directly but said he was determined to “deliver on the mandate of the people” from the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The embattled Johnson got a supportive assist on Thursday from visiting Vice President Pence, who met with him at 10 Downing Street and suggested a post-Brexit trade deal could “increase trade between our countries by three or four times.”
“The United States is ready, willing and able to immediately negotiate a free-trade agreement with the U.K.,” Pence said.
Johnson has been criticized by his opponents for being too deferential to the U.S. administration. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has charged that Johnson would bring the U.K. “a one-sided United States trade deal that will put us at the mercy of Donald Trump and the biggest American corporations.”
Johnson took pains in his session with Pence to say he wanted a trade deal “that works for all sides.”
“The National Health Service is not on the table, as far as our negotiations go,” he said. “We’re not too keen on that chlorinated chicken, either. We have a gigantic chlorinated chicken of our own, here, on the opposition benches.”
Pence chuckled at Johnson’s reference to his latest nickname for Corbyn.
The United States and Britain can’t actually strike a trade deal until after Brexit. And whether Johnson would be around to negotiate it is unclear.
Parliament has rebelled against his position that Britain should be willing to leave the E.U. on Oct. 31 without a withdrawal deal to manage the transition. The House of Commons passed legislation on Wednesday designed to avert a chaotic no-deal Brexit next month. That legislation seeks a three-month delay in Brexit if no terms can be reached before the Oct. 31 deadline.
The House of Lords, after debating well into the night Wednesday, cleared the way for the bill to get final approval by Friday.
Now the big battle seems to be when — rather than if — to hold a general election for the 650 seats in the House of Commons.
Johnson’s government on Monday plans to introduce new legislation again seeking an early election, despite Parliament’s rejection of such a plan on Wednesday night, officials said.
Johnson argued in Yorkshire that an Oct. 15 election was needed to determine who would represent Britain’s Brexit strategy at a key Oct. 17 meeting of E.U. leaders.
Labour has said it would be eager for an election to unseat Johnson, but only when the party had a guarantee that Britain would not “crash out” of the E.U. without a deal. There is debate within the party about whether that would mean holding off until after an extension of the Oct. 31 deadline had been secured.
John McDonnell, a top Labour Party lawmaker, said Johnson, whose plans were resoundingly slapped down in Parliament three times in 24 hours, was acting like a toddler.
“Fine, have your tantrum,” McDonnell said Thursday on Sky News. “But we are not going to allow you take this country out on a no-deal Brexit, because you will undermine our economy.”
Beyond the public rationale, Johnson needs an election to have any chance of moving any legislation. He lost his governing majority this week through defections from rebellious party members and his remarkable decision to expel from the party more than 20 lawmakers who voted against him in Parliament. Some of those kicked out were among the most experienced and honored members of the party.
One of those purged was Nicholas Soames, 71, the grandson of Winston Churchill. He told the Guardian Thursday that many Conservative lawmakers agreed with his defiance of Johnson’s no-deal Brexit threat; he said he had received more than 500 emails from people thanking him.
“In a debate in the House in 1938, Chamberlain accused my grandfather of undermining his negotiations with the Germans,” he said, referring to Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister at the time. “I think history will prove my grandpapa to be right under the circumstances. And I think I will prove to be right.”
Many in the Conservative Party on Thursday were calling for the reinstatement of the excommunicated lawmakers.
In a speech in Glasgow, former prime minister John Major said that “without them — and others like them — we will cease to be a broad-based national party, and be seen as a mean-minded sect.” He said the government’s behavior in recent days was something “I never thought to see from any British government, and it must stop.”
In Brussels, frustration with the British drama was running high. Senior negotiators have all but given up on discussions with Johnson’s team for now, seeing little point in making plans with a group that could soon be swept out by elections. And despite Johnson’s claims of “great progress,” British negotiators have not offered any new ideas that could be the subject of negotiations, officials said.
“There’s been no concrete proposals yet. It’s all smokescreen,” said a senior E.U. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive — if apparently lacking in substance — talks.
Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost, was in Brussels on Wednesday for more than five hours of discussions. But there was little on the table to discuss, the European diplomat said.
“I don’t know what they talk about,” the diplomat said.
E.U. officials say that although they are eager to avoid the chaos of a no-deal Brexit, they are unwilling to compromise on their demand for ironclad guarantees that the Irish border remain open, although Johnson has suggested otherwise in Parliament.
But they also said that E.U. leaders had no plans to push Britain out of the European Union against its will, and that if Johnson asked to delay his country’s exit date to hold a general election, he would almost certainly be granted the reprieve.
Robert Costa in London, Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Laura Hughes in Washington contributed to this report.