LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a devastating loss Tuesday on his first key Brexit vote, setting up a legislative battle Wednesday that could lead to a snap general election.
A rough day for Johnson, when 21 members of his own Conservative Party joined opposition lawmakers to take control of the parliamentary agenda and force a vote on a Brexit delay, concluded with the prime minister introducing a bill seeking a general election. He suggested he would seek action on that election bill if Parliament votes Wednesday to postpone Brexit by three more months.
“Parliament is on the brink of wrecking any deal we might be able to strike in Brussels,” Johnson said. “Because tomorrow’s bill would hand control of the negotiations to the E.U. And that would mean more dither, more delay, more confusion.”
While denying that he wanted an election, the prime minister added, “If the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on October 17 to sort this out.” That is the date British and European Union officials are scheduled to meet next.
Johnson was selected as leader of Britain in July through a vote involving only dues-paying members of his party. A general election — putting all seats in the House of Commons up for a vote — could either sink his government or give him a popular mandate for his promise to leave the E.U. by Halloween, “do or die.”
The prime minister would need the support of two-thirds of Parliament to schedule an election, which could happen as soon as Oct. 14. It would be Britain’s third general election in five years.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party was prepared to fight an election, but he first wanted Parliament to pass the delay bill and ensure that Britain won’t abruptly crash out of the E.U. in October without a deal to manage the withdrawal.
“Tonight we defeated Boris Johnson in his first Commons test and tomorrow we will legislate against his disastrous No Deal plans,” Corbyn tweeted.
Analysts say a “no-deal” Brexit could be economically damaging and lead to food and medicine shortages in Britain. Johnson has dismissed those predictions as fearmongering.
Johnson lost Tuesday’s procedural vote, 328 to 301. That capped a humiliating day for the prime minister, who was appearing before Parliament for only the second time since taking Britain’s top job. He was heckled mercilessly as he defended his hard-line Brexit stand.
He noted that Tuesday was the 80th anniversary of Britain’s entrance into World War II and said, “This country still stands then as now for democracy, for the rule of law.” He was met with jeers.
He insisted that Britain was making progress in talks with E.U. leaders about an orderly Brexit, which drew more mocking laughter.
As Johnson spoke, Conservative lawmaker Phillip Lee dramatically crossed the chamber to defect to the Liberal Democrats, explaining in a statement that Johnson’s party had become “infected with the twin diseases of populism and English nationalism.”
Lee’s theatrical move stripped Johnson of his single-vote working majority in the House of Commons, making it all but impossible for him to enact legislation and increasing his incentive to ask the nation’s voters for a mandate.
In a sign of the economic uncertainty caused by the political turmoil, the British pound dropped to its lowest level against the dollar in 35 years, apart from a brief plunge in 2016 that was probably due to technical reasons. It regained the lost value by the end of the day Tuesday.
Catherine Barnard, a professor of European law at the University of Cambridge, said that in a less fractious era, Johnson might find other parties willing to cooperate with him. But “at the moment, nothing is possible at all,” she said.
The British leader has stoked anger with particularly hard-nosed tactics. He has secured the queen’s approval to suspend Parliament for five weeks as the Brexit clock ticks down and warned rebellious lawmakers in his party that he would kick them out and prohibit them from running as Conservatives in the next election.
The rebels in Tuesday’s vote included party grandees Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, both former chancellors, as well as Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson. Johnson idolizes Churchill and wrote a fawning biography of him.
Soames told the BBC’s “Newsnight” program that he was told he’d have the whip removed — a term for formal expulsion from the party — Wednesday morning, after serving 37 years in Parliament. “That’s fortunes of war,” he said. “I knew what I was doing, but I just believe that they are not playing straight with us. To say you want a deal is quite different from saying you want a deal that is achievable.”
Sitting next to him on the same program, Clarke, who became a Conservative member of Parliament in 1970, said that the Conservative Party under Johnson has become the “Brexit Party rebadged.”
Hammond said earlier in the day that Johnson and his allies were being “disingenuous” in their claim that any delay from the Oct. 31 deadline would undercut the government’s negotiating position and disrupt progress on talks with the E.U. over an exit deal.
Hammond said there is “no progress” going on in meetings with the E.U. because the government has put forward “no proposals” — and there isn’t even a negotiating team.
Guto Harri, Johnson’s former communications director, told the BBC that Johnson risks “historical humiliation” in the Brexit maneuvering. “It looks as if he’s prepared to bet on himself being the shortest-serving prime minister in history,” Harri said.
Tuesday was another day of noisy protests outside Parliament, with demonstrators in E.U. blue chanting: “Save our democracy! Stop the coup!”
Many wore yellow stickers that read “Bollocks to Brexit.”
There were also pro-Brexit signs that read “Remain MPs are the only obstacle to a good deal” and “Traitor Parliament.”
“Brexit is a bad idea,” said Roger Horne, a retired accountant from London. Outside the bloc, “Britain would have to go on bended knee to either President Trump or the remaining E.U. I think we have greater power, greater influence in the E.U.”
Referring to Johnson’s threat to expel Tories who don’t back him, he said, “Maybe Johnson is trying to turn it [the party] into some kind of religious sect.”
Val Bateson, 77, a librarian, holding a large red “Vote Leave” placard, said that “Parliament has been fiddling about for three years and not implementing this even though they promised to do so.”
When a group of pro-E.U. demonstrators marched by, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” Bateson said under her breath, “You didn’t get a majority, mate.”
Laura Hughes in Los Angeles contributed to this report.