LONDON – Members of Britain’s Parliament delivered a sharp warning to the country’s next prime minister: They will not allow him to pursue a no-deal Brexit without a fight.
In a dramatic result Tuesday evening, MPs narrowly passed a measure aimed at stopping the U.K.’s future leader forcing the country out of the European Union without an agreement, against their wishes. The result sets up another potential crisis in British politics in the weeks and months ahead as the U.K.’s leaders grapple with the intractable tensions of Brexit.
Minutes after the vote, the two men vying to become prime minister clashed on television over the same issue that dominated the debate in the House of Commons: whether they would be willing to close down Parliament in order to deliver Brexit — with or without a deal — by the deadline of Oct. 31.
Boris Johnson, the front-runner in the leadership contest, refused to rule out suspending Parliament if it’s the only way to complete Brexit on time, while his rival, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, rejected the idea.
With the opposition Labour Party committing itself to opposing any Brexit plan put forward by either of the two men, all Britain’s politicians seemed to be digging themselves into more entrenched positions, and the possibility of compromise looked further away than ever.
The U.K. is due to leave the EU by the end of October, but Parliament is deadlocked and refusing to pass a deal. Both Johnson and Hunt have rejected the other possible routes to a resolution, such as a referendum or a general election. Unless something gives, Parliament may have to choose between a no-deal Brexit or bringing down the government.
While he’s the clear favorite to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, Johnson, if he does win, will find MPs set against his strategy. Johnson argues that the U.K. needs to look as if it’s serious about no-deal in order to persuade the EU to shift its position.
“If we go into these negotiations from the beginning with a plan to allow that deadline yet again to be fungible, to be a paper-mache deadline, I’m afraid that the EU will not take us seriously,’ Johnson told the debate. ‘Nor will business understand that they must prepare for no-deal.”
Several ministers have said Parliament would block a no-deal Brexit, and on Tuesday night, Johnson was asked if he’d be willing to suspend Parliament to push one through. “I’m not going to take anything off the table,” he replied.
Just an hour earlier, the House of Commons voted to pass a measure proposed by rebel pro-EU Conservative Dominic Grieve to make it harder for the premier to suspend Parliament. The vote was tight — passing by 294 votes to 293 — and a subsequent part of Grieve’s plan was narrowly rejected, but MPs had shown they were willing to act to stop a no-deal split from the EU.
Hunt dismissed the idea of suspending Parliament. “When that has happened in the past, when Parliament has been shut down against its will, we actually had a civil war,” he said.
The foreign secretary accused Johnson of being a people-pleaser, rather than a leader. “Being prime minister is about telling people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear,” he said. The leader must be ‘honest’ with people about the ‘challenges” ahead, Hunt said.
One of those challenges is the hardening position of the Labour Party. Without a majority in the Commons, any prime minister can only get a Brexit deal through if they can pick up some Labour votes.
But the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Tuesday yielded to pressure from activists to oppose Brexit. He said the party would now support a second referendum on any Tory proposal, and would campaign to remain in the EU in that referendum. That’s not a good sign for Conservatives hoping that Corbyn would let some of his MPs back a Brexit deal in order to get the issue resolved.
Johnson avoided questions about whether he supported Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., Kim Darroch, who is under attack from Donald Trump over comments about the U.S. administration in leaked diplomatic cables.
Johnson said he admired Hunt’s ability to change his mind. Hunt had his response ready.
“I really admire Boris’s ability to answer the question,” Hunt said. “You ask him a question, he puts a smile on your face, and you forget what the question was. It’s a brilliant quality for a politician, maybe not a prime minister.”