The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Britain’s Johnson threatens to purge rebel party members as Brexit battle heats up

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson outside 10 Downing Street on Sept. 2, one day before an expected showdown with Parliament over a no-deal Brexit. (Simon Dawson/Reuters)

LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday signaled that he is prepared to call a high-stakes snap election next month if his political opponents try to block his plans for Britain to exit the European Union on Oct. 31.

Johnson on Monday said publicly that he did not want an election. But he made his intentions clear to his cabinet and other staff amid a rising and emotional stalemate over his handling of Brexit. A senior member of his government said that if Johnson’s opponents are successful in delaying Brexit, “the inevitable consequence of that will be an election.”

A general election would be a serious gamble for Johnson and his opponents, headed by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, in the bitter Brexit debate that has raged in Britain since 2016, when a slim majority voted to leave the E.U.

Johnson, who took office in late July on a defiant pledge to deliver Brexit by Halloween “do or die,” could see his government crash and burn quickly in a national vote, or he could potentially emerge in a far stronger position.

But an election could also see Corbyn, a far-left leader and harsh critic of President Trump, end up as prime minister, leaving Brexit and the U.K.’s relations with the United States filled with uncertainty.

“The risks are huge,” said Robert Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester. “But then, it’s 4 a.m. in the casino if you’re the Conservative prime minister at this point. Every option is a high-stakes gamble, every option is a risk.”

Britain’s next general election is scheduled for 2022. But under the British system, a general election can be called at virtually any time, as long as two-thirds of Parliament supports it.

The government official said it should be possible to get a two-thirds vote because Labour is likely to support a move to potentially unseat Johnson. The most likely date for an election would be about Oct. 14, ahead of a key European Council meeting on Oct. 17, the official said.

In a speech Monday, Corbyn said he would support an election.

“When a government finds itself without a majority, the solution is not to undermine democracy,” he said. “The solution is to let the people decide, and call a general election.”

Britain’s Johnson, Corbyn headed for ferocious Brexit showdown when Parliament returns Tuesday

He said his priority Tuesday, when Parliament returns from its summer recess, is to introduce legislation to block Britain’s departure from the E.U. without an agreement in place to regulate trade, border security and other critical issues — the so-called no-deal Brexit.

Most lawmakers in Parliament oppose leaving without an exit plan, something many analysts say could be economically damaging and lead to food and medicine shortages. Johnson has dismissed those predictions as fearmongering.

Corbyn’s efforts to block a no-deal Brexit, or seek an extension beyond Oct. 31, will be aided by a faction of Conservative members of Parliament opposed to Johnson’s position.

A cross-party group of a dozen members of Parliament plans to propose legislation on Tuesday asking the government to seek a three-month extension of the Brexit deadline, according to a draft of the proposal circulated Monday evening by Labour legislator Hilary Benn.

Johnson accused his opponents of seeking “yet another pointless delay.”

“There are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay. We are leaving on 31 October, no ifs or buts,” he said.

Benn said that it was “absolutely extraordinary” for Johnson to say that under no circumstances would he ask for a delay. “If the bill passes, it would require him by law to do that,” he told the BBC. “Either we have a prime minister who accepts the rule of law, or we don’t.”

Johnson has a tiny working majority in Parliament — just one vote. He was not elected by the British people, but by a vote of Conservative Party members choosing a new leader after Theresa May stepped down as prime minister over her failure to deliver Brexit.

Johnson has employed tough tactics, threatening on Monday to kick members of Parliament out of the Conservative Party if they don’t support him.

Conservative rebels reacted angrily to Johnson’s threat, which would mean they could not run as Conservative candidates in any upcoming election.

Nick Boles, a former Conservative legislator who quit the party over Brexit, told the BBC that Johnson’s tactics mean the party has been “taken over” by the “hard right.”

“The Conservative Party has fallen prey to an almost religious obsession with the hardest form of Brexit, which is obviously a Brexit with no deal,” he said in a radio interview Monday.

Johnson insisted Monday that Britain was making progress and that “chances of a deal are rising,” partly because Johnson’s government had made it clear to Brussels that it was “utterly determined” to leave the E.U. on Oct. 31 “come what may.”

He said his opponents’ attempts to block any no-deal Brexit would “chop the legs out from under the U.K. position and make any further negotiation impossible.”

“And so I say, to show our friends in Brussels that we are united in our purpose, MPs should vote with the government against Corbyn’s pointless delay,” he said.

A key Johnson opponent, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, tweeted after Johnson’s statement: “Plainly obvious from that statement that Johnson has no plan to get a deal. If MPs blink tomorrow, he will drive the UK off the no deal cliff on 31 October. He must not get away with it.”

Could Johnson’s ‘no-deal Brexit’ break up the United Kingdom?

Former Labour Party prime minister Tony Blair warned in a speech Monday that opponents should be cautious about seeking an election. He said that could be an “elephant trap” laid by Johnson. He noted that Corbyn is so unpopular with many voters, and the opposition is so divided, that the Conservatives might win a general election.

This week’s battles in Parliament will also center on Johnson’s plan to suspend Parliament for five weeks, starting sometime next week. Corbyn and other enraged opponents have called that an attack on Britain’s democracy.

A suspension of Parliament is not unusual, but the length of this year’s shutdown — at a time when Britain is facing its biggest political decision in decades — is highly unusual.

As Johnson spoke outside his office Monday night, protesters loudly chanted “Stop the coup!”

Corbyn said Monday that he feared Johnson’s willingness to accept Brexit without a deal.

“A no-deal Brexit is really a Trump-deal Brexit, leading to a one-sided United States trade deal that will put us at the mercy of Donald Trump and the biggest American corporations,” he said.

Corbyn said that in Johnson, “Trump has found a compliant British leader who will dance to his tune.

“Unless we stop Johnson’s Tory government now it’s a headlong rush into the arms of Donald Trump,” he said.

Boris Johnson seizes momentum on Brexit with combative move to suspend Parliament

Could Boris Johnson’s ‘no-deal’ Brexit break up the United Kingdom?

Boris Johnson asked the queen to suspend Parliament. Why didn’t she just say no?

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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