LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a major defeat in Parliament on Tuesday night as rebellious lawmakers voted to seize control of the Brexit agenda. The prime minister immediately said he would call for a new general election.
The 328 to 301 vote cleared the way for Johnson’s opponents to introduce a bill Wednesday that would prevent Britain from leaving the European Union without a deal Oct. 31.
The cross-party rebels are determined to prevent a “no-deal” Brexit because of fears it would gravely damage the economy, and the vote came hours after Johnson suffered key defections from his party, losing a working majority in Parliament.
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!”
A new general election would take Britain’s future directly to the people for a third general election in four years.
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 and accused 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.
Corbyn says he wants legislation in place preventing a “no-deal” Brexit before agreeing to a new election.
“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.
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.
But these rules were introduced in a 2011 law and have never been tested.
Time is short. Johnson last week maneuvered to give his political opponents even less time to block a chaotic no-deal Brexit, getting Queen Elizabeth II’s approval to suspend Parliament. His outraged critics sued, and attorneys arguing the case at a court in Scotland completed submissions Tuesday. The judge could rule as soon as Wednesday.
France’s Europe minister says she’s ready but still waiting for alternative British proposals for its divorce agreement with the EU.
Secretary of state for European affairs Amelie de Montchalin said Tuesday the French government is focused instead on preparing for Britain to crash out of the trading bloc Oct. 31 without any plan for the future.
Just as Johnson told his Parliament that “alternative solutions” to the divorce deal are on the table, de Montchalin told reporters in Paris that she has received “no packet of documents” outlining them.
She wouldn’t comment on rising British political tensions over Brexit.
She accused British politicians of over-dramatizing the so-called backstop designed to avoid a new border between the EU’s Ireland and U.K.’s Northern Ireland. She said “the backstop is not a two-headed monster,” and “we are totally open to what the British propose.”
French government ministers met Tuesday with business leaders to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.