London, United Kingdom | AFP | British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could pivot towards a general election as the EU mulls granting a Brexit deadline extension on Wednesday, after a fresh twist to the divorce saga cast doubt over his hopes of leaving on October 31.
In tense parliamentary votes on Tuesday, Johnson won initial backing for the divorce deal he agreed with the EU — but MPs then rejected his timetable to rush it through parliament in a matter of days.
Following that setback, Johnson said he would halt the ratification process while European Union leaders consult on a delay — which MPs had forced him to ask for on Saturday by law.
European Council President Donald Tusk has recommended that EU’s 27 other member states grant the extension as requested, which would be until January 31, 2020 unless the deal is ratified before then.
As it stands, without that unanimous agreement, Britain is due to crash out of the EU in eight days’ time.
Though MPs voted positively on a EU divorce proposal for the first time in the tortuous three-year saga, Johnson runs a minority Conservative government and has had enough of opposition MPs blocking Brexit.
He told MPs before Tuesday’s votes that if parliament decided to “delay everything until January or possibly longer, in no circumstances can the government continue with this.
“We will have to go forward to a general election. I will argue at that election: let’s get Brexit done.”
A three-month delay would give time to hold a general election before the New Year — though it would require the support of two-thirds of MPs.
The Labour main opposition has spurned two previous chances to face an election.
– ‘Break this impasse’ –
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the length of the extension would be the EU’s choosing — and leaders would want to know what an extension could achieve.
“We are left with the option of a general election,” he told BBC radio.
“That seems, to me, to be the only way to break this impasse.”
The Britain Elects poll aggregator puts the Conservatives on 35 percent, Labour on 25 percent, the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats on 18 percent, the Brexit Party on 11 percent and the Greens on four percent.
For the Conservatives — who are 33 seats short of a majority — “the polls have been moving in their favour”, polling expert John Curtice told BBC radio.
“If that were to be replicated in the ballot box, it should give them an overall majority, maybe around 20 or so” seats.
– ‘PM’s Brexit horror’ –
Johnson won a significant victory when the House of Commons voted by 329 to 299 to approve in principle a bill that implements his Brexit deal.
But just minutes later, MPs rejected by 322 to 308 his timetable motion demanding they push through the bill in three days to allow Britain’s departure at the end of this month.
Britain’s newspapers on Wednesday raked over the results.
“PM’s Brexit horror” said the Daily Mirror front page.
The Daily Telegraph headlined: “Brexit is in purgatory”, while the Daily Mail said of MPs: “Trust this lot to turn triumph into disaster!”
The Sun’s editorial said: “We didn’t think this rancid Remainer parliament could get worse. But MPs topped it all with last night’s pantomime.”
London’s stock market steadied at the open Wednesday and the pound was stable against the dollar and euro on expectations of a further delay.
Businesses and markets on both sides of the Channel fear a no-deal scenario, where Britain severs ties with its closest trading partner with no new plans in place after 46 years of integration.
In the June 2016 EU membership referendum, 52 percent of voters in the UK backed leaving the bloc.
MPs three times rejected a divorce deal struck by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.
Johnson, who took office in July, defied expectations in striking a revised deal last Thursday — and seemed relieved that MPs voted positively for it to be considered further.
It covers EU citizens’ rights, Britain’s financial settlements, a post-Brexit transition period until at least the end of 2020 and new trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
It also sets out vague plans for a loose free trade agreement with the EU after Brexit.