A rebel alliance of British lawmakers has voted to seize control of the parliamentary agenda on Wednesday, setting the wheels in motion on a plot to block Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans.
The government lost the vote by 301 votes to 328, a margin of 27.
The opposition MPs and rebel Conservative lawmakers will now try to push through a bill that will prevent Johnson from taking the UK out of the EU on October 31 without a deal.
If the Prime Minister makes good on threats to fire members within his own party who voted to back the measure, it will blow up the Conservative Party’s majority, which dropped to zero earlier in the day when an MP defected in dramatic fashion.
Members of Parliament opposed to Britain crashing out of the EU — as Johnson has threatened to do — had called Tuesday for an emergency debate allowing them to seize control of the agenda from the government in the House of Commons tomorrow.
The House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, allowed the debate to go ahead, paving the way for a vote later on Tuesday. If it passes, rebel MPs — including a number of lawmakers from Johnson’s own Conservative Party — will take control of business in the House on Wednesday and could pass legislation that would delay Brexit and outlaw the no-deal scenario.
Johnson was expected to seek an early election if he lost the high-stakes vote, and has threatened to remove the whip from — essentially fire — any rebel Conservative MP who defies the government and votes with opposition lawmakers.
One of them, former treasury chief Philip Hammond, said he believed that between opposition lawmakers and rebel Conservatives, they have the numbers to vote for a delay to the Brexit deadline.
The Prime Minister suffered an embarrassing blow even before the vote, when Conservative MP Phillip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats right as Johnson was addressing the House on Tuesday afternoon. Lee’s dramatic defection meant that Johnson’s working majority in Parliament dropped from 1 MP to 0.
Johnson has been adamant he does not want to take the possibility of no-deal Brexit off the table. He believes the threat of no-deal makes his negotiation position stronger. Leaving without an agreement would be hugely disruptive for the British economy, but it would also hurt the rest of the EU.
Addressing the House of Commons, shouting to be heard over jeers of “sham” and “resign,” Johnson condemned the legislation aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit, saying it would “force me to go to Brussels and beg [for] an extension” and “destroy any chance” of negotiating a new agreement.
“It would enable our friends in Brussels to dictate the terms of the negotiation. That’s what it does,” Johnson said.
The bill, backed by a cross-party group of politicians, would indeed send Johnson to Brussels in order to seek an extension to the Brexit process until January 2020 if he failed to agree a new deal with the EU at a summit scheduled for mid-October.
Alternatively, Johnson would need to ask for Parliament’s consent for a no-deal Brexit. The latter scenario is unlikely given that a majority of MPs opposed a no-deal Brexit in previous votes.
The Prime Minister has been trying to renegotiate the withdrawal deal agreed with the EU by his predecessor Theresa May, demanding the removal of the so-called Irish backstop.
The clause is designed to prevent the reintroduction of border infrastructure between the Republic of Ireland, which will continue being an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. The EU has so far refused, saying Johnson has not been able to offer a workable alternative.
But in his speech on Tuesday, Johnson said that his government had made progress to this end — progress the bill would obliterate.
“I will never surrender the control of our negotiations in the way the Leader of the opposition is demanding,” Johnson said, dubbing the legislation Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “surrender bill.”
But Corbyn questioned Johnson’s characterization of those negotiations with the EU, saying the government’s only strategy so far has been to “run down the clock.”
“The Prime Minister may claim progress has been made, but EU leaders report that the government has so far failed to present any new proposals,” Corbyn said.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that his reckless government only has one plan, to crash out of the EU without a deal.”