LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain was bracing for a confrontation with lawmakers Tuesday as they returned to work a week after his shock announcement of a suspension of Parliament this month. The move, which limited the time lawmakers have to find a way to prevent Britain from crashing out of the European Union on Oct. 31 without a deal, angered the opposition and aggravated divisions within his own party.
Now, opposition and rebel lawmakers are trying to wrest the legislative agenda from Johnson and introduce a measure to make a no-deal Brexit impossible without Parliament’s approval and require the government to request an extension of the Brexit deadline if no agreement is reached.
Johnson has parried with a threat to call a snap election if lawmakers succeed in passing such legislation, leaving Parliament in a tense standoff as the summer break ends.
Here’s what you need to know as Britain braces for another day of political turmoil.
What is the showdown about?
Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on Oct. 31, and Johnson has vowed that it will happen on time, with or without a deal. But opposition parties and a significant number of rebels in his Conservative Party are adamantly opposed to a no-deal Brexit, which they say would be chaotic and economically damaging in the short and long term.
Seeking to tie Parliament’s hands, Johnson said last week that he had asked the queen to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament later this month, cutting short the already tight time frame for lawmakers to come up with a way to prevent Britain from crashing out of the European Union with no agreement in place.
The move left lawmakers scrambling for a way to weigh in on the most momentous decision the country has faced in its recent history. They decided to try to ram through legislation requiring the government to seek a Brexit extension if it has not reached agreement with the European Union on withdrawal by the deadline.
But Monday evening, in an address outside No. 10 Downing St., Johnson made it clear that he was unalterably opposed to seeking another extension.
“I want everybody to know there are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay,” he said, as a crowd of protesters shouting “stop the coup” was audible in the background. “We are leaving on Oct. 31, no ifs or buts.”
Can Boris Johnson stop his opponents?
He is certainly trying. The final outcome hinges almost entirely on opponents of a no-deal Brexit in his own party. Johnson has threatened to kick those rebel lawmakers out of the party if they join the opposition in voting against the government.
By insisting that he will not request a Brexit extension, he is making it clear that if he loses the vote he will seek to dissolve Parliament and call a snap election.
A government official confirmed as much Monday evening, saying an election would be held Oct. 14, about two weeks before the withdrawal deadline. It would be the third general election for British voters in just over four years.
Johnson held a precarious one-vote majority in Parliament at the start of the day Tuesday, including support from the 10 seats of a conservative party from Northern Ireland. But the defection later in the day of a Conservative member of Parliament, Phillip Lee, to the Liberal Democrat party, meant that his working majority was no longer at play.
So although the election under such circumstances might prove chaotic, Johnson is betting that he can win a strong enough mandate to push through Brexit by Oct. 31, “do or die,” as he often says.
What does Boris Johnson really want?
Since his first address to Parliament as prime minister in July, Johnson has insisted that he is prepared for Britain to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 with or without a deal. He says this stance gives him increased bargaining power in negotiations with Europe to secure a new agreement that is more beneficial to Britain.
Even as he has raised the stakes at home, Johnson has ramped up discussions with Brussels through his Brexit negotiator, David Frost, in an attempt to find an alternative to the Irish backstop, an element of the proposed Brexit deal that has been a major sticking point.
But critics say there is not enough time to come up with a solution to the complex issue before the end of October. And many say the negotiations — and Johnson’s call for Brexit at any cost — are just ruses, aimed at a general election in which he can frame himself as the candidate who made an earnest effort to deliver on the will of the people versus the career politicians and others in Westminster.
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His stance “cultivates the ground for a ‘people vs politicians’ campaign,” Michael Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, wrote on Twitter soon after Johnson addressed the nation Monday.
The strategy could work in the prime minister’s favor. Even after his decision to suspend Parliament, 33% of respondents in a poll from YouGov said they were likely to vote for his Conservative Party, easily topping the opposition Labour Party’s 22%.
But it could also backfire. The same poll noted that Britons are not happy with the actions of the government, with 53% deeming Johnson’s suspension of Parliament “unacceptable.”
His tactics have alienated members of his own party and left some stalwarts, like Philip Hammond, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, in open rebellion. And they seem to have done the near impossible in uniting the divided opposition parties in an effort to stop him.
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How will this play out logistically?
Lawmakers returned to Parliament on Tuesday after weeks away and are expected to ask the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, for an emergency vote to allow opposition members to “seize control of the order paper” — a move that would give them control of the daily agenda.
Bercow is expected to make a decision on that request Tuesday evening. Considering his open criticism of the prime minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament, he seems likely to approve their request, leading to a vote Tuesday night.
That would set the stage for Johnson to ask Parliament to call a general election. This requires a two-thirds majority, and the opposition Labour Party, while welcoming the idea of an election, says it might not support such a request.
If the lawmakers fail to pass the legislation, it appears that Britain will continue on the path toward the current Brexit deadline, with or without a deal, as Johnson has vowed.
What will this mean for Brexit?
With the value of the pound plunging through the $1.20 barrier Tuesday, it is obvious what currency traders think: more confusion and uncertainty, which is bad for business, and possible chaos, with shortages of food, medicines and fuel, which is bad for everyone.
What keeps analysts and business leaders up at night is the compressed schedule. If a general election is held Oct. 14, a new government would have only 17 days to deal with things before the Brexit deadline. Making matters even more hectic, the European Union is holding a summit Oct. 17 and 18, at which the leaders are consider what to do about Brexit. That assumes, of course, that the government in place has a plan to consider.
Much will depend on which party, or parties, form the government and with how much of a mandate. If the Conservatives win, Johnson will claim a mandate for leaving, with or without a deal.
But if the opposition Labour Party wins — perhaps with the backing of other opposition parties like the strongly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats — then Corbyn is likely to seek an extension from Brussels, allowing time to either negotiate a new deal with the Europeans or, potentially, call a second referendum.