LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a big defeat in parliament on Tuesday as rebels seized control of Brexit agenda.

The 328 to 301 vote cleared the way for Johnson’s opponents to introduce a bill on Wednesday (today) that would seek to prevent Britain from leaving the European Union without a deal on Oct 31.

The prime minister said after the vote that he would call early elections.

The cross-party rebels are determined to prevent a “no-deal” Brexit because of fears it would gravely damage the economy.

The prime minister’s office has indicated he would seek an early election if that bill is passed to take his Brexit case to the people.

The government’s leader in the House of Commons accused rebels of an unconstitutional attempt to seize control of Parliament’s agenda.

Legislators are likely to introduce a bill seeking to stop Britain from leaving EU without a deal

Jacob Rees-Mogg said at the rebel bid to take control of the agenda from the government is an unprecedented threat to democratic norms.

Rees-Mogg said as the debate began that “it is not ... for Parliament to undertake the role and functions of the executive”.

The outspoken advocate for Brexit said the cross-party group seeking to force the government to rule out a “no-deal” Brexit wants to ignore the millions of voters who favoured leaving the European Union in the 2016 referendum.

Earlier, the prime minister lost his working majority in parliament with the dramatic defection of a party member ahead of the showdown with MPs over Brexit.

In a heated parliamentary session, Johnson condemned a plan by lawmakers to block his Brexit strategy as “surrender” and said it would undermine his intention to negotiate a new divorce deal with the EU.

Opposition MPs and rebel members of his Conservative party are planning to vote for delaying beyond Oct 31 if he cannot agree on exit terms with Brussels.

While Johnson was making his statement, Conservative MP Phillip Lee was seen crossing the floor of the Commons to sit with the pro-European Liberal Democrats. Lee said in his resignation letter that the Conservative Party “has become infected with the twin diseases of populism and English nationalism” as a result of Brexit.

MPs were first trying to make room in the parliamentary agenda for a debate of the bill by putting forward a motion voted on by MPs on Tuesday evening. If they succeed, they will introduce their bill on Wednesday (today) and seek to get it through before parliament is suspended next week.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Johnson was not really intending to do a deal with Brussels and instead planned to crash Britain out of the EU. “His is a government with no mandate, no morals and, as of today, no majority,” he said.

The rebels believe they have the numbers to force through the plan, which is backed by the main opposition Labour party and could delay Brexit to Jan 31, 2020.

Lee’s defection means the prime minister no longer has a majority in the 650-seat chamber. The government’s numbers could shrink even further if it dismisses MPs who voted against it.

But losing the majority does not automatically bring down the government as this can only happen if the government loses a formal confidence vote.

On a day of high drama, an Edinburgh court also heard a legal challenge against Johnson’s decision to suspend parliament next week for more than a month, which critics said was a bid to silence MPs. The judge is expected to announce his ruling on Wednesday (today).

Pound tumbles

The heightened political tension sent the British pound tumbling on Tuesday to its lowest level against the dollar in almost three years. Johnson took office less than six weeks ago, after his predecessor Theresa May was forced out over her failure to get her Brexit divorce deal through parliament.

From the start, he faced opposition from his own MPs who fear his threat of leaving the EU without an agreement with Brussels risks severe economic disruption. Leaked government assessments have warned that no-deal could lead to food, fuel and medicine shortages.

UN economists also on Tuesday warned that Britain could lose at least $16 billion a year on exports to the European Union if it left without a deal. Johnson has rejected the divorce deal on the table but insists he wants to reach an agreement with Brussels to ease the end of Britain’s 46-year-old EU membership.

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2019

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