LONDON— Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain failed Monday in his first bid to secure backing for a general election. But he seemed on track to prevail in a followup attempt later in the week, which would toss the fate of his Brexit campaign from the European Union to the British electorate.
Johnson’s latest day of one-step-forward, one-step-back progress began when the EU extended the deadline for Britain’s departure by three months, to Jan. 31. Johnson accepted the extension, formalizing that he had broken his promise to lead Britain out of the union at the end of October.
But it also opened the door to an election, which he has been angling for since he became prime minister in July. With his Conservative Party leading in the polls, Johnson views a pre-Christmas election as a way to amass a solid majority in Parliament and a popular mandate for his policy of a swift Brexit.
In the parliamentary manoeuvring on Monday, Johnson withstood yet another defeat. The Labour Party, lagging in the polls and divided about the merits of holding a quick election, refused to back his motion to call one for Dec. 12, denying him the necessary two-thirds majority to put it on the calendar.
But that defeat, which had been widely expected, did not stop the government from pressing for an election. Johnson immediately said he would introduce a bill to circumvent the 2011 law that requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament to schedule an election, so it would only need a simple majority.
With the support of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, that motion would likely pass, opening the door to a vote in December. After months of deadlock in Parliament, the question of when and how Britain should leave the EU would effectively go back to the British people.
“I don’t believe that this paralysis and stagnation should be allowed to continue,” Johnson said during a raucous debate in the House of Commons, after his initial motion went down to defeat.
Earlier, borrowing an analogy from across the Atlantic, Johnson accused the opposition of behaving like Lucy, Charlie Brown’s bait-and-switch friend in the “Peanuts” comic strip, appearing to co-operate on advancing legislation only to torpedo it at the last minute.
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“We’re all like Charlie Brown,” he said, “endlessly running up to kick that ball, only to have Parliament pull it away again.”
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said he would not support Johnson’s call for an election on Dec. 12 because in his view the prime minister was not trustworthy. He also cited more tactical reasons, including the lack of daylight in early December and that university students — who are thought to be more hostile to Brexit — will have gone home for Christmas holidays by then, effectively disenfranchising many students who are registered to vote at the address of their college or university.
“The reason I’m so cautious is that simply, I do not trust the prime minister,” Corbyn said. “Every promise this prime minister makes, he abandons.”
If Johnson is on the threshold of an election, that raises the possibility of an end to the Brexit deadlock. Britons could either vote to give Johnson a majority big enough to push through his Brexit plan, or opt for parties that want a second referendum on withdrawing from the EU.
Still, even the first step on that road — securing an election — is not assured. The hope of a breakthrough emerged over the weekend when the centrist and pro-European Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party said they would be prepared to vote to allow a December election to take place.
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The support of these parties could give Johnson a majority for a bill under which Parliament would disregard the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act, which requires a two-thirds majority to the schedule an election.
The Liberal Democrats said they would agree to an election on Dec. 9 — three days earlier than Johnson had proposed — providing he shelves his plan to try to push his Brexit agreement with Brussels through Parliament.
Before signing off on this, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party would need to be satisfied with the wording of the government proposal, the government’s commitment not to proceed with its Brexit bill and the election date. Johnson would want assurances that they will not try to amend the bill.
Despite the lack of trust between the political parties, there is a convergence of interests. Under Johnson, the Conservatives want to appeal to Britons to give them a mandate to leave the EU quickly. The Liberal Democrats are eager for an election before Britain leaves the EU because they are running on a platform of revoking Brexit altogether. That message would be rendered irrelevant in any election held after Britain had already left.
The Scottish National Party would like an election as soon as possible because its former leader, Alex Salmond, faces trial next year on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault — an unpalatable backdrop for its campaign.
While Labour is especially vulnerable because of the unpopularity of Corbyn and its complicated position on Brexit, a December election would be a gamble for the Conservatives, too. A number of Tory seats in the south of the country are vulnerable to increased support for the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats.
It also remains unclear whether Brexit supporters will blame Johnson or Parliament for breaking his “do or die” pledge to leave the EU on Oct. 31. An election before Britain exits would keep Nigel Farage’s hard-line Brexit Party in play, allowing it to siphon vital votes from the Conservatives. Christmastime elections are extremely rare in Britain.
Politicians fear that voters will be reluctant to brave the cold weather to vote or will resent the intrusion on their preparations for the Christmas vacation.
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Europeans, for their part, are desperate for a resolution. In agreeing to the extension, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, referred to the delay as a “flextension,” meaning that Britain could leave before Jan. 31 if Parliament passes all the relevant legislation.
Last week, President Emmanuel Macron of France argued that Britain should be granted an extension only until the end of November, just enough time to allow Johnson to try again to push his agreement through Parliament.
But as senior European diplomats convened Monday morning to reach the decision, the view prevailed that they should allow events in London to play out, rather than forcing political developments by granting a short extension.
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