Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a fresh Brexit showdown in parliament on Wednesday after a stinging defeat over his promise to get Britain out of the European Union at any cost next month.
The Conservative leader said he would call for an early election on October 15 if lawmakers vote against him for a second day in a row by backing a bill that could delay Brexit for three months.
“I will never allow that,” Johnson told the House of Commons, saying the draft plan would “surrender” control over Brexit negotiations to Brussels.
However, the opposition Labour party warned it would not support him in calling a snap poll, which requires the support of two-thirds of MPs.
Johnson’s position has already been considerably weakened by Tuesday’s vote, after he expelled 21 of his own MPs who rebelled — depriving his government of a parliamentary majority.
If he loses again on Wednesday but fails to force through an election, his six-week-old government would be left in limbo just weeks before Britain’s scheduled exit from the EU on October 31.
Johnson took office in July, three years after the 2016 referendum to leave the EU, promising to deliver Brexit whatever happens.
He says he wants to renegotiate the divorce deal struck with Brussels by his predecessor Theresa May, arguing that his threat of leaving with “no deal” will force EU leaders to agree better terms.
Brussels has so far refused, and the European Commission warned on Wednesday it saw no alternative to the current withdrawal agreement.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the idea that Johnson is negotiating with Brussels was “a sham — all he’s doing is running down the clock.”
But Johnson insisted his team, which met with customs experts in Brussels on Wednesday, was making “substantial progress”.
The EU Commission also said the risk of a “no deal” exit has increased, a prospect many fear because of the economic damage it could cause after almost half a century of close ties with Britain’s closest neighbours.
However, Bank of England governor Mark Carney said Wednesday the institution believed the impact would be “less severe” than previously forecast, in part because of government preparations.
Labour ‘not dancing’
On Tuesday night, rebel Tories joined with Labour and other opposition MPs to clear the Commons timetable on Wednesday afternoon to debate their own Brexit legislation.
Their bill would force the government to delay Brexit until January 31 unless it has agreed exit terms with the EU at a summit on October 17-18, or secured MPs’ approval for a “no deal” divorce.
But it also raises the prospect of rolling Brexit delays, and Johnson warned it would only cause “more confusion” and wreck any hopes of a deal.
It must be approved by MPs and the unelected House of Lords before Monday to take effect, but Johnson warned that if it goes through its first stage on Wednesday, he would call elections.
He challenged Labour to back him, urging Corbyn to “let the people decide” how to resolve the Brexit impasse.
However, Labour fears that Johnson might reschedule the poll until after October 31 to make sure that Britain leaves the bloc — deal or no deal.
“Nobody believes him because the levels of trust in Boris Johnson are very, very low,” Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told ITV.
“So we’re not going to be voting with Johnson today. We want a general election, but we’re not dancing to his tune.”
The other Labour concern is that an early election could work in Johnson’s favour as the Conservatives have received a poll boost thanks to his hardline stance on Brexit.
However, an election could also be a risk for Johnson, who could lose voters to the eurosceptic Brexit Party.
If Wednesday’s election bid fails, there might be other ways for Johnson to force snap polls, including by bringing forward his own fresh legislation.
There was some respite for the government on Wednesday when a court in Scotland ruled that Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament for over a month starting next week was lawful.
The 75 parliamentarians behind the legal challenge accused the prime minister of curbing opposition attempts to block his Brexit strategy and bring down his government.
A similar case will be heard in London on Thursday.