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Parliament's next Brexit brawl: When to hold elections
[LONDON] As a law stopping a no-deal Brexit moved closer to clearing its final hurdle Thursday, British lawmakers began drawing the battle lines for their next fight: whether, and when, to hold a general election.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to take his call for a snap general election to members of the public Thursday, with a speech in northern England, as his team worked to frame the law averting a no-deal Brexit as a "surrender" to the European Union.
But Mr Johnson was upstaged Thursday by a member of his own family: His younger brother Jo Johnson resigned from Parliament, saying he was giving up his seat because he was "torn between family loyalty and the national interest."
"It's an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles," he said in a Twitter post.
With his Brexit plan stymied, the prime minister sees an election as the only way to create a stable majority for his Conservative Party in Parliament and secure a mandate for pulling Britain out of the European Union with or without a deal governing future relations. Despite his early stumbles, Mr Johnson is still outpolling his opponents.
Opposition lawmakers say they, too, want early elections, but they have also insisted on having a say over when to hold them. They have so far stopped Mr Johnson from securing the election he craves, at least for now.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, whose votes Mr Johnson needs to call an election, has said repeatedly that he will not agree to an election until the law stopping a no-deal Brexit is on the books. That way, Mr Johnson would be denied the wiggle room to, say, schedule an election after the Oct 31 deadline for leaving the European Union and letting Britain crash out of the bloc without a deal.
Despite the resistance from opposition lawmakers, Mr Johnson remained committed to putting his vaunted campaigning skills to the test.
He was expected to give a speech Thursday railing against the law to stop a no-deal Brexit. He has branded it "Jeremy Corbyn's surrender bill," for the influence he believes it gives the European Union in deciding how long to extend the Brexit deadline to avoid Britain leaving without a deal.
The Labour Party is divided over when to hold an election. Many lawmakers want to postpone a vote until after they have forced Johnson to seek a delay to Brexit and after the current departure date of Oct 31 passes.
They believe that would make him vulnerable to attacks from other right-wing parties that have insisted Mr Johnson not allow any delay to Brexit. They also hope a later election would let the shine of Mr Johnson's short time in office, already fading this week, disappear completely among voters.
Mr Johnson's Conservatives were split this week by his decision to purge the party of lawmakers who defied his threats and voted to stop a no-deal Brexit, among them Tory grandees like Ken Clarke, a lawmaker since 1970, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Mr Johnson's hero, Winston Churchill, who has served in Parliament for 37 years.
Mr Johnson's first boisterous debates in the House of Commons have also been unkind to the new prime minister. Analysts have long believed his improvisational style and loose grip of the facts would serve him poorly at the despatch box, where prime ministers field questions from the opposition, but critics said he looked particularly weak at times this week.
And true to form for a politician known to put his foot in his mouth, Mr Johnson lashed out amid a barrage of attacks from the opposition, appearing at one point to say to Mr Corbyn, "Call an election, you great big girl's blouse."
His opponents quickly called the comment sexist and unbecoming of a prime minister.
Some parts of the Labour Party believe Mr Johnson has already hurt his election chances with his early missteps, along with his provocative decision to shut down Parliament for five weeks. Those lawmakers, sanguine about the party's chances despite poor poll numbers, prefer a mid-October election, reasoning that the best way to guarantee that Britain does not leave the bloc without a deal is to kick Mr Johnson out of office as soon as possible.
John McDonnell, a senior Labour lawmaker who speaks for the opposition on finance matters, said in a radio interview Thursday that his party was still considering how to lock in an election date that eliminated the threat of a no-deal Brexit.
The opposition has been buoyed by its success in pushing through the law that would force the prime minister to ask Brussels for a delay to Brexit if he cannot secure a new withdrawal agreement soon.
Lawmakers in favor of the bill feared that the House of Lords, an unelected body that acts as upper house of Parliament, could filibuster its passage. But after hours of debate, allies of Mr Johnson in the House of Lords backed down in the early hours of Thursday, allowing for the bill to advance through the chamber by the end of the week.