LONDON (Reuters) - The British parliament on Wednesday voted to prevent Prime Minister Boris Johnson taking Britain out of the European Union without a deal, but he sought an election just weeks before Brexit to free his hands.
After wresting control of the parliamentary agenda from Johnson six weeks into his premiership, lawmakers voted 329-300 in the second of three readings of a bill that would force the government to request a three-month Brexit delay rather than leave without a divorce agreement, with all the disruption that would entail.
Johnson argues that he needs the threat of leaving without a deal to force the EU into making concessions on the divorce agreement that would satisfy parliament.
He cast the legislative move as a surrender to the EU, and demanded an Oct. 15 snap election, a step that could free him of any constraints if he won a majority.
“What unites us is a conviction that there is no mandate for ‘no-deal’ and that the consequences for our economy and our country would be highly damaging,” said Hilary Benn, a senior Labour lawmaker who proposed the bill.
A total of 21 rebels from Johnson’s Conservative Party voted for Benn’s bill, which was due to be voted on in its third reading sometime after 7 p.m. (1800 GMT).
The second most powerful man in the Labour Party, John McDonnell, said the legislation had to get royal assent, putting it onto the statute book, before his party would agree to an election. This could, in theory, happen next Monday.
Parliament’s bid to tie Johnson’s hands leaves Brexit up in the air, with possible outcomes ranging from a no-deal exit from the EU to abandoning the whole endeavour - both outcomes that would be unacceptable to swathes of the United Kingdom’s voters.
“Boris is a friend of mine, and he’s going at it - there’s no question about it,” U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters during a hurricane briefing in the Oval Office.
“I watched him this morning - he’s in there fighting. He knows how to win. Boris knows how to win. Don’t worry about him. He’s going to be OK.”
“WE WON’T BE CONNED”
Many of Johnson’s opponents say he might exploit any wiggle room to allow Britain to leave the EU as scheduled on Oct. 31 before a new parliament could convene.
Above all, they doubt that he can secure a better divorce deal before then than the one his predecessor Theresa May secured but failed to get through parliament.
They fear that the resulting ‘no-deal’ Brexit, cutting Britain’s economic ties with the EU overnight, would dislocate trade and travel, damage the economy and cause shortages of food, fuel and medicines.
“We’re ... not going to be tricked or conned by Johnson so we’re looking at every way in which, having secured the legislation, he can’t wriggle out of abiding by the law and implementing it,” McDonnell said.
Sterling jumped briefly above $1.22 for the first time since Aug. 30 as investors became slightly more optimistic that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could be avoided. [GBP/]
Beyond the frantic political manoeuvring, the United Kingdom fundamentally has three main Brexit options: to leave with a deal, leave without a deal or cancel Brexit.
While Johnson’s attempt to get an election approved later on Wednesday was likely to fail, the lower house of parliament could agree to one on Monday.
An October poll would open up three likely options: a Brexiteer government under Johnson; a Labour government led by veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, who has promised a fresh referendum with staying in the EU as an option; and a ‘hung’ parliament with a coalition or minority government.
There would be little time to negotiate any deal before Oct. 31, but a new, avowedly pro-Brexit government could overturn any law passed by the current parliament aimed at preventing a no-deal departure.
“GET BREXIT DONE”
In a sign of how far Brexit has distorted British politics, Johnson’s Conservatives said on Tuesday they were expelling 21 rebels - including the grandson of Britain’s World War Two leader Winston Churchill and two former finance ministers - from the party. Hours earlier, Johnson had already lost his working majority as one of his lawmakers defected.
In one piece of good news for Johnson, a Scottish court ruled that his decision to suspend parliament later this month was lawful.
Johnson said his strategy was to secure a divorce agreement before an EU summit on Oct. 17, and “get Brexit done”. He said the government was making substantial progress and would succeed in removing the Irish border ‘backstop’.
“This government is going to get a deal from our friends in Brussels,” Johnson said. “We will get an agreement.”
Yet the EU has refused to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement reached with May.
In Brussels, British and EU diplomats made clear there was no immediate prospect of substantive negotiations on a divorce deal as Britain’s new negotiator arrived for talks.
And Ireland said Johnson had not yet presented any solutions to address the backstop - the toughest part of the Brexit impasse, concerning checks on the land border between the Irish Republic and the British province of Northern Ireland.
There were reports in British newspapers that Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings had described negotiations as a sham.
Asked on Wednesday if that was how he saw the Brexit negotiations with the EU, Cummings told Reuters: “No. I never said that.”