LONDON – U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has begun moves to trigger a snap general election after suffering a humiliating defeat for his Brexit strategy that left his ruling party in tatters.
A fresh vote to choose a new government would mark the climax of the political chaos that has engulfed Britain for the past three years since the country voted narrowly to leave the European Union in a referendum in 2016.
That Brexit vote ended the premiership of David Cameron. The failure to deliver on it saw his successor, Theresa May, forced out in July. Now, after only six weeks in the top job, Johnson himself is staring into the abyss, with Brexit divisions shredding his Conservative administration.
On Tuesday, he lost his ruling majority when one of his own Tory MPs defected to join the Liberal Democrats. Six hours later, Johnson’s first test in a Commons vote ended in a heavy and damaging defeat. He retaliated by firing rebels from his party.
Members of the House of Commons voted 328 to 301 to take a crucial first step toward forcing the prime minister to delay Brexit by three months in an effort to stop a no-deal split. He has repeatedly rejected such a delay under all circumstances.
In all, 21 Conservatives defied Johnson and voted against him, effectively sacrificing their careers in politics as his officials immediately began expelling the rebels from the party for failing to obey the premier’s orders. Rebels punished in this way included former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond.
On Wednesday, a Scottish court ruled that Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament later this month until mid-October is lawful.
More than 75 lawmakers had legally challenged Johnson’s right to suspend — prorogue — Parliament, arguing that it was illegal and unconstitutional because he was seeking to do so in order to force through a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31 by limiting the opportunity for opponents to object.
Judge Raymond Doherty said the question was not a matter for the courts and was a political issue that should be judged by Parliament and the electorate.
“In my view, the advice given in relation to the prorogation decision is a matter involving high policy and political judgment,” Doherty told Scotland’s Court of Session. “This is political territory and decision-making which cannot be measured against legal standards and only by political judgments.” Joanna Cherry, a Scottish National Party lawmaker who led the challenge, said they would seek to appeal the decision.
Johnson announced on Aug. 28 that he would suspend Parliament from mid-September to mid-October to allow the government to announce a new legislative program.
The Scottish court was told on Tuesday that a memo passed to Johnson two weeks beforehand indicated he was looking to suspend Parliament even while his aides were publicly denying there were any such plans.
The ruling may be short-lived because it is almost certain to be appealed.
The group of more than 70 lawmakers had argued that the government’s advice to the queen to suspend Parliament for as long as five weeks was unconstitutional because it curtailed debate in Westminster.
The case, alongside two other cases in London and Belfast, will likely end up in front of the U.K.’s highest court. The judges are planning to cut short their summer break to review the matter on Sept. 17, five days after the planned suspension comes into effect.
Jo Maugham, an attorney spearheading the legal case for the lawmakers said he is focused on an appeal to the Scottish Inner house, “hopefully later this week.”
“The hearing was always going to be a bit of a pre-season friendly,” Maugham said.
Johnson has warned his enemies that if they did not back down Wednesday, he would go further and try to break up Parliament to trigger a general election.
But that too could backfire. He needs the support of the opposition Labour Party for an election, and he may not get it. What happens now depends on events in Parliament.
Johnson’s opponents planned to seize control of the Commons agenda and put forward their own draft law that would force him to delay Brexit until Jan. 31. They are trying to stop him from carrying out his threat to take Britain out of the EU without a divorce agreement if necessary on Oct. 31, fearing that a no-deal split would be economically disastrous.
Johnson says his critics are “on the brink of wrecking any deal that we might be able to strike.”
If the Commons votes to pass the Brexit delay law, there will be no choice but to go to the voters and ask them to choose a new government to negotiate with the EU at a key summit next month, Johnson said.
“I don’t want an election, the public don’t want an election,” he told Parliament on Tuesday. “But if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 to sort this out.”
To get an election, Johnson needs two-thirds of all MPs — 434 of them — to vote with him for a poll. Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn told the prime minister he could have the election if he first let the rebel bill pass into law. That is a deal that Johnson might well take. If he wins a majority in the election, he will be able to repeal the law.
The pound seesawed after it became clear Johnson’s attempt to scare Conservatives into submission and to stop Parliament from giving him instructions had backfired.
Johnson insists he needs to keep the option of a no-deal divorce on the table as leverage during negotiations. But European officials say the U.K. has brought no credible ideas to the table, and they worry that Johnson has an eye on the election and wants to scapegoat the EU.
Tuesday evening saw emotional moments as the rebels prepared to cast what they knew would be their final votes as Conservative MPs. Former minister Stephen Hammond shook hands with a colleague who wasn’t rebelling before setting off to defy his leader. As the evening closed, Conservative Party whips were calling the 21 rebels and telling them they were no longer Tory MPs.
Johnson, who started the day with 311 MPs and a majority of one, finished it with 289, very much the leader of a minority government. Even if there isn’t a vote for an election this week, with numbers like this, a poll will have to come soon.