Thursday 19 September 2019

Election speculation mounts in Britain as Johnson calls cabinet meeting on eve of 'last chance' Brexit battle

  • Johnson delivers Brexit ultimatum to rebels
  • Parliament to seek to thwart government plans
  • UK could be heading for election
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, Britain, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/Pool
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, Britain, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson/Pool

Guy Faulconbridge and Cormac McQuinn

BRITISH Prime Minister Boris Johnson summoned ministers to a meeting on Monday, stoking speculation he could call an election if parliament defeats the government over a Brexit plan opponents fear could push the United Kingdom into a ruinous no-deal exit.

Johnson's promise to take the country out of the European Union on Oct. 31 with or without a divorce deal has propelled the United Kingdom towards a constitutional crisis and a battle with the 27 other members of the bloc.

An alliance of opposition lawmakers are plotting with rebels in Johnson's Conservative Party to take control of parliament and tie the government's hands with legislation that would block a no-deal exit, fearing leaving without a deal will be ruinous to the economy.

Just 24 hours until parliament returns on Tuesday from its summer break, Johnson's enforcers warned rebels that if they voted against the government they would be kicked out of his Conservative Party.

With little clarity on whether the deadlocked British parliament might be able to come up with a resolution to the three-year Brexit crisis, talk turned to a possible election.

"We want a general election," opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said, to oust Johnson's "phony, populist cabal".

He added: "We must come together to stop no deal - this week could be our last chance."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he may meet Johnson next week.

He said he would listen to alternatives to the backstop, but so far suggestions have been on just managing the border, which he told RTE was not the outcome Ireland wanted.

The Taoiseach told RTE: "I am always willing to listen to any proposal that a British Prime Minister has.

"The backstop is a means to an end.

"It is there to ensure that we continue to have frictionless trade north and south, that there is no physical infrastructure, no checks, no controls, no tariffs.

"We want that to continue to be the case. It has been the case since 1992, we want that to continue.

"Of course, I would listen to any proposals that the British Prime Minister may have to achieve that by an alternative means and we provide for alternative arrangements in the joint political declaration."

Varadkar said he expects a “substantial financial package” will be needed in the Budget for businesses and industries that would be hit in an event of a no-deal Brexit.

He said some money will come from the European Union, but the majority “will have to come from our own resources”.

He said taxpayers in Bratislava and Rome can’t be expected to pay for decisions made in London.

However, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Corbyn, a veteran socialist, to avoid what he cast as an election "elephant trap" Johnson had laid for Labour.

"Boris Johnson knows that if no-deal Brexit stands on its own as a proposition it might well fail but if he mixes it up with the Corbyn question in a general election he could succeed despite a majority being against a no-deal Brexit because some may fear a Corbyn premiership more," Blair said.

Johnson has called a cabinet meeting for later on Monday. The BBC's political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, said Johnson could ask MPs to vote on calling an election if they vote against his government on Brexit.

Asked if the prime minister was planning an election, Johnson's spokesman said: "He has been asked this on many, many occasions and his answer has always been that he doesn't want there to be an election."

Betting odds indicate an October election is now favourite, Ladbrokes said, with a 75% implied probability of an election before the end of 2019.

The United Kingdom has held a variety of extraordinary votes in recent years: In 2014, Scots rejected independence in a referendum; in 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron won a surprise majority on a pledge to hold an EU referendum but then lost the referendum the following year.

After winning the top job in the chaos following the referendum, then Prime Minister Theresa May bet on a 2017 snap election but lost her majority.

More than three years since the United Kingdom voted 52-48% to leave the European Union, it is still unclear on what terms, or indeed whether, Brexit will take place.

In the parliamentary chess game, the default position is that Britain will leave on Oct. 31 without a deal unless a divorce agreement is struck with the bloc and ratified by the British parliament or legislation is passed to delay or revoke the departure notice.

Johnson, the face of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, has cast rebels as EU "collaborators" who are undermining the government's negotiating hand in seeking a withdrawal agreement by blunting his threat of a no-deal Brexit.

"Their (the government's) strategy, to be honest, is to lose this week and then seek a general election," said David Gauke, a former justice minister who is one of the rebel Conservative lawmakers.

Johnson has a working majority of just one seat in the 650-seat lower house of parliament and British media suggested about 20 Conservative lawmakers were prepared to rebel against him.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister responsible for parliamentary business, said any wise party would prepare for an election and that any vote on rebel legislation would be considered a matter of confidence in the government.

"It is important for the government to establish the confidence of the House of Commons and this is essentially a confidence matter: Who should control the legislative agenda, Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson?" Rees-Mogg said.

An election would open up three main options: a Brexit-supporting government under Johnson, a Labour government led by Corbyn or a hung parliament that could lead to a coalition or minority government of some kind.

After Johnson moved to suspend parliament ahead of Brexit, opponents of a no-deal exit are seeking to overturn his decision in the courts. Hearings are due on Sept. 3, Sept. 5 and Sept. 6.

Nick Boles, a former Conservative who now sits as an independent member of parliament, said the rebels would seek to force the government to ask the EU for a Brexit delay if it was unable to ratify a revised Withdrawal Agreement by a certain date in October.

Reuters

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