Rebel lawmakers launch bid to stop a no-deal Brexit — which could prompt a snap UK election

People walk near the Elizabeth Tower, commonly referred to as Big Ben, near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London on April 18, 2017.

JUSTIN TALLIS | AFP | Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned members of his own party that if they did not vote with the government when the country’s parliament returns on Tuesday from a summer break, they would undermine the U.K.’s position in talks with the EU, as his administration rushes to refashion a new Brexit deal before October 31.

Johnson has insisted there were “no circumstances” in which he would ask his European counterparts for a further delay to the already twice postponed Brexit deadline, and he has also hinted that legislators’ opposition could force him to request a new national election.

The pound weakened significantly against both the dollar and the euro on Monday, after parliamentarians on either side of the country’s Brexit divide talked up the possibility of a confrontation that could trigger further uncertainty. On Tuesday, sterling fell below $1.20, hitting its lowest level since a flash crash in October 2016.

Opposition lawmakers and some members of Johnson’s Conservative Party have spent recent weeks in discussions on how best to prevent a disorderly Brexit, in which the U.K. would separate from the world’s largest trading bloc without a detailed legal and commercial agreement.

With his statement from outside 10 Downing Street on Monday night, the British leader sought to strong-arm lawmakers who might seek to limit his room for maneuver with Brussels, after it became clear over the course of the past weekend that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his allies would seek to rapidly introduce legislation on Tuesday to block an economically damaging hard Brexit in late October.

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This legislation, a draft of which was released Monday night on Twitter by an opposition lawmaker Hilary Benn, is designed to give parliament the final say over the government’s behavior and could push Brexit’s current deadline back till the end of January 2020. It forms part of an effort designed to counteract Johnson’s earlier decision to suspend the legislature’s activities for an exceptionally long period of time in the lead up to the October 31 exit date.

Johnson has sent representatives to restart discussions with the EU over the Irish backstop, an insurance policy to protect the border between the U.K. and Europe on the island of Ireland that proved the thorniest of issues in the agreement that was previously negotiated during Theresa May’s premiership.

And the prime minister insisted Monday that efforts to rule out a no deal, an implicit threat that he says will force the EU to soften its own stance on the issue, could “chop the legs out” from under the U.K.’s negotiating position.

He vowed that parliament would still have an opportunity to examine any changes to an agreement that might be finalized at a summit of EU leaders in the second half of next month, and warned that an election would only complicate the problem.

“I don’t want an election, and you don’t want an election,” he said in an appeal to a notional, national television audience, part of an electorate that since 2014 has endured two elections, twin referendums and consecutive Conservative prime ministers resign on the issue of Europe.

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But several political analysts and observers said Downing Street might actually welcome the chance to campaign on their Brexit position.

“Johnson and his allies seem to believe that they could frame a snap election as a choice between the ‘people’ and an anti-democratic political class,” said Kallum Pickering, a senior economist at Berenberg, in a research note to clients. The probability of a Corbyn-led government, he insisted, “remains low.”

Johnson would nevertheless require some opposition lawmakers to support the idea of an election, since two thirds of the lower chamber, the House of Commons, must vote in favor of holding another national vote. And some senior Labour politicians have said the damage from a disorderly exit must be avoided at any cost, even if it meant their party appearing to be unwilling to face voters in the near term.

“Our mission is very clear and it is about preventing no deal,” said Jenny Chapman, a senior party spokesperson on Brexit. “If that means that a general election can’t happen at that particular point, then stopping no deal must come first.”

Meanwhile inside Johnson’s own party, frustration is clear among some potential rebels, who had faced public threats on Monday from party disciplinarians that they would lose their Conservative status and affiliation in a new election.

Alistair Burt has served as a Conservative lawmaker and occasional government minister for decades, and told the BBC that if the government chose to ignore the legislation introduced Tuesday, he would find that “rather startling.”

He pointed out that Johnson has already sought to avoid parliamentary scrutiny with his month-long order to suspend the legislature. He also hinted at hypocrisy in Downing Street’s threat “to remove former senior ministers, when the cabinet contains members who voted consistently and helped to bring down Theresa May’s government — who are in place because of their actions.”

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