LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced another parliamentary defeat on Monday in a vote on holding early elections as Brexit turmoil deepened with the House of Commons speaker promising to resign within weeks.
Parliament will be suspended for five weeks immediately after the vote, leaving Johnson to attempt to salvage his hard-line Brexit strategy amid fierce opposition in Westminster and scepticism in Brussels.
The controversial suspension will begin shortly after MPs are set to vote again against Johnson’s bid to hold a snap election next month — just before the country is due to leave the European Union on Oct 31.
“Parliament will be prorogued at close of business today,” Johnson’s spokesman said at a daily briefing, using the parliamentary term for the suspension.
The attempt to force an election follows another tumultuous day in parliament that saw legislation aimed at preventing a no-deal Brexit on Oct 31 become law.
In an impassioned resignation speech, speaker John Bercow also told MPs he would step down by Oct 31 at the latest. Bercow has faced withering criticism from eurosceptics for a perceived anti-Brexit bias, but has been praised by supporters for sticking up for parliament’s right to have a say in the tortuous Brexit process.
Johnson held talks with his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar in Dublin before returning to the parliamentary turmoil later on Monday to kick off the debate over holding an election.
The British leader ordered the shutdown in an apparent bid to stymie a cross-party block by MPs opposed to a possible no-deal Brexit. He has vowed to take Britain out of the EU by the Oct 31 deadline with or without a formal divorce deal — despite warnings that the latter scenario would entail economic chaos.
However, the planned suspension has provoked uproar from opposition MPs and Conservative critics, who have labelled the move a constitutional outrage. It appeared to backfire by galvanising them into passing legislation last week that forces Johnson to seek another delay to Brexit if he has failed to reach a deal at an Oct 17-18 EU summit.
Johnson responded to the proposed law by trying to force the snap election, but fell short in a vote of the necessary support of two-thirds of MPs. He will try again later in another vote widely expected to fail.
Opposition party leaders, who met on Monday, have vowed to keep blocking the snap poll until Brexit has been extended beyond Oct 31.
Johnson met Varadkar on Monday hoping to lay the groundwork for new divorce terms as he finds himself increasingly cornered just six weeks after taking over from his predecessor Theresa May. He wants the bloc to scrap a special provision in the deal agreed by May to keep the Northern Irish border open in all circumstances after Brexit, arguing “alternative arrangements” exist.
But Brussels and Dublin have insisted the so-called backstop mechanism must remain in place to guarantee no return to a hard border between EU member Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland, which suffered decades of deadly sectarian violence.
They say Johnson has also yet to propose the details of any workable alternatives. “While they agreed that the discussions are at an early stage, common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain,” the two leaders said in a joint statement following an hour of talks.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2019