Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has staked his job on his ability to deliver Brexit, suffered two major losses in Parliament on Wednesday, leaving his governing authority in doubt and the terms of Britain’s pending divorce from the European Union unclear.
The resounding votes against Johnson capped a dramatic week in which protesters marched across the country and legislators switched loyalty or were excommunicated from their party. Britons of every ideology have been left angry, frustrated and often overwhelmed by a national emergency that won’t seem to end.
At the center of the storm stands Johnson, a bombastic and polysyllabic former journalist, who is seen as a crusading hero for British independence by his fans, and a untrustworthy, undemocratic charlatan by his enemies.
After just six weeks on the job, Johnson has lost his governing majority, exiled some of his party’s most honored members and been slapped down by lawmakers three times in 24 hours.
“It’s the shortest honeymoon in British political history,” said Jon Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool, who said Johnson is essentially in government, but not in power. “Boris Johnson is in a terrible mess.”
Things came to a head Wednesday night when lawmakers in the House of Commons, as they had the night before, defied Johnson’s will and, this time, passed legislation seeking to avert a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31 and effectively delay Brexit another three months.
Opposition lawmakers were joined by more than 20 rebel members of Johnson’s Conservative Party to hand him a humiliating defeat.
The bill still needed to be passed by the House of Lords, which planned to debate all night Wednesday but is expected to give its approval.
Johnson accused lawmakers of voting “to stop, to scupper any serious negotiations.”
“I think it’s very sad that MPs have voted like this. I think it’s a great dereliction of their democratic duties,” he added.
An hour later, the House of Commons served Johnson a defeat on his backup plan: a bill to force an early national election on Oct. 15. Johnson said voters should get to choose whether he or Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn represents Britain at a Brexit-focused meeting of EU leaders on Oct. 17.
Johnson needed two-thirds of the 650 members of the House of Commons to support his call for a general election, and he fell far short, with just 298 votes. The Labour Party’s 247 lawmakers abstained from the vote.
“We want an election so we look forward to turfing this government out,” Corbyn said. But he called Johnson’s election motion “a cynical move by a cynical prime minister” who is trying to sneak through a no-deal Brexit.
Before they would back an election, Corbyn and his lieutenants insisted on guaranteeing against an October no-deal exit with legislation approved by the House of Lords and signed into law.
Johnson couldn’t resist tweaking Corbyn after the vote: “The obvious conclusion I’m afraid is he does not think he will win.”
Corbyn is a far-left leader who is deeply unpopular among many Britons. But it is Johnson who is in a profoundly weak position – and risks falling into the same quagmire that cost his predecessor, Theresa May, her job.
A defiant Johnson led his first “Prime Minister’s Questions” session in Parliament on Wednesday and demanded, “Let’s get Brexit done.”
Johnson portrayed himself as a “sensible, moderate and Conservative” leader who wanted to “deliver the mandate of the people” by an Oct. 31 deadline, even if that means a no-deal exit without agreements in place to regulate trade and other matters. He accused his opponents of “dither, delay and confusion” that would guarantee more years of debate and uncertainty about Brexit. And he dismissed predictions of the economic harm of a no-deal Brexit as “shameless scaremongering.”
Johnson claimed neither he nor the British people want another general election, which would be the third in five years. But his position rang hollow to many observers. On Tuesday morning he had a slim working majority, by only one seat, in the House of Commons. By Wednesday, after defections and excommunications, he was 43 seats short of a working majority, making it nearly impossible for him to pass any legislation, even on non-Brexit bills.
So an election may be inevitable – although maybe not on Johnson’s terms. And he seems to be pursuing a risky strategy.
Johnson has banned from his party the 21 rebels who voted against him on Tuesday. He seems to hope they will be replaced in the next election by candidates more loyal to him and his Brexit vision. But those banned lawmakers include some of the most respected figures in the party, including two former chancellors of the exchequer, or finance ministers: Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond.
“There has to be an election, but Boris Johnson has damaged his own party in the run up to an election,” said Tonge, the professor.
Also banished, remarkably, was Nicholas Soames, 71, former prime minister Winston Churchill’s grandson, who has served in Parliament for 37 years. Johnson idolizes Churchill and wrote a biography of him.
Bafflement over that expulsion was summed up by Ruth Davidson, who stood down as the Conservatives’ leader in Scotland last week.
“How, in the name of all that is good and holy, is there no longer room in the Conservative Party” for Soames, she tweeted, using the hashtag: #anofficerandagentleman.
In a debate ahead of a vote on the delay legislation, Soames, who is now an independent lawmaker, urged others to back the bill, which he said “merely seeks to avoid disaster of a no-deal Brexit.”
He said that he believed that the result of the 2016 EU referendum had to be respected and pointed out that he backed May’s deal on three occasions, “which is more than can be said for the prime minister, the leader of the House and several members of the cabinet, whose serial disloyalty has been such an inspiration to so many of us.”
The bill passed in the House of Commons Wednesday would require Johnson, by Oct. 19, to win Parliamentary approval for a Brexit deal or a no-deal exit, or to write to the EU seeking a three-month delay on Brexit. With EU agreement, the new Brexit date would be Jan. 31.
In effect, the bill would delay Brexit, and forbid a no-deal Brexit next month without Parliament’s approval – which it will not give. It would give London three more months to negotiate Brexit terms, which is has been unable to do in the past.
For years, EU diplomats watched May, negotiate positions with the EU, then fail to rally Parliament behind her. They briefly hoped Johnson might be more successful, but now they said they believe they were wrong.
EU Brexit negotiators say they remain eager to see new proposals from Johnson’s team. But they are bracing for the impact of a possible no-deal Brexit. They have set aside $858 million to help EU countries hurt by a no-deal Brexit, redirecting money intended to help victims of natural disasters and globalization.
“There’s a real problem with Johnson, and it’s a problem Theresa May didn’t have,” Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit negotiator, said on Sky News. “People disagreed with Theresa May, but when she stood at the dispatch box and said something, she meant it and she was trusted.”
“Johnson is not trusted,” Starmer said. “Even if he says the election will be on the 15th of October, most people in Parliament won’t believe him. This is his central problem.”
At least one person remains fully confident in Johnson. In the Oval Office Wednesday, President Donald Trump said: “He’s a friend of mine, and he’s going at it, there’s no question about it. Boris knows how to win. Don’t worry about him.”
Johnson won one victory Wednesday morning in one of several legal cases that have been filed over his decision to suspend Parliament for five weeks. A judge in Scotland’s highest civil court on Wednesday ruled that the decision was lawful, but those who brought the case – 75 lawmakers – could appeal. There are similar legal challenges in Northern Ireland and in England.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Kevin Sullivan, Karla Adam