UK’s Johnson weakened by party defections over Brexit

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered key defections from his party Tuesday, losing a working majority in Parliament and weakening his position as he tried to prevent lawmakers from blocking his Brexit plans.

On a day of high drama and acerbic debate in the House of Commons, lawmakers returned from their summer recess to confront Johnson over his insistence that the U.K. leave the European Union on Oct. 31, even without a withdrawal agreement to cushion the economic blow. Many shouted, “Resign!”

Speaker of the House John Bercow ruled that lawmakers opposed to Johnson’s Brexit plan could try to seize control of Parliament’s agenda from the government, clearing the way for a vote later Tuesday night that could give the rebels the power to set the agenda. If the rebels succeed, they could try to block a “no-deal” Brexit in a further vote Wednesday.

When challenged by the government on the validity of his ruling, Bercow said he had gotten professional legal advice and was confident his path was correct.

“I have sought to exercise my judgment in discharging my responsibility to facilitate the House of Commons, to facilitate the legislature,” he said defiantly. “I have done it, I am doing it, and I will do it to the best of my ability without fear or favor — to coin a phrase, come what may, do or die.”

If the rebel lawmakers are successful, Johnson’s Downing Street office said he’ll call an early election — taking his argument directly to the people for a third general election in four years.

“Enough is enough,” Johnson said. “The country wants this done and they want the referendum respected. We are negotiating a deal and I am confident of getting a deal.”

Johnson’s tenuous position became clear even as spoke in Parliament for the first time since it reconvened. Lawmaker Phillip Lee rose from his chair on the Conservative benches and sat down with the Liberal Democrats, a defection that meant Johnson lost his slim working majority.

That makes Johnson vulnerable should lawmakers opt to try to oust him in a vote of no confidence and will complicate passage of legislation.

Earlier Tuesday, two other prominent Conservatives signaled their intention not to seek re-election rather than bend to Johnson’s will. Former Cabinet minister Justine Greening and former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt also signaled their intention to stand down.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, lambasted the weakened Johnson, accusing him of “riding roughshod” over the constitution in order to crash Britain out of the EU without a deal.

“He isn’t winning friends in Europe. He’s losing friends at home. His is a government with no mandate, no morals and, as of today, no majority,” Corbyn said.

Johnson, who became prime minister in July, has tried to crack down on members of his Conservative Party who oppose his Brexit plans, warning they would be expelled from the party if they supported parliamentary efforts to block or delay the withdrawal.

Dominic Grieve, who was attorney general in David Cameron’s government, says the expulsion threats demonstrate Johnson’s “ruthlessness.” Greening said she feared her beloved party was “morphing into Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.” Former Treasury chief Philip Hammond warned of the “fight of a lifetime” if officials tried to prevent him from running in the next election.

All three oppose Johnson, with Hammond saying he expected a procedural motion to take control of business. If it passed, a vote to block a no-deal would be considered Wednesday.

Changing the government would not be so simple, however. A no-confidence vote would spark a 14-day period in which Johnson could try to overturn the result. If he failed, there would be a general election.

During that key 14-day period, another lawmaker could try to win Parliament’s backing in a vote. If they succeeded, Johnson should, in theory, have to step down and let the winner form a government.