Wednesday 20 November, 2019

UK opposition parties reject Boris Johnson's election call

Britain's opposition parties said Friday that they won't support Prime Minister Boris Johnson's call for an election when the issue gets voted on next week, piling more pressure on Britain's embattled leader as he seeks a way to make good on his promise to leave the European Union next month.

The parties have been mulling whether to agree to Johnson's plan for an Oct. 15 election, which can only be triggered if two-thirds of lawmakers agree.

Johnson already lost a vote on the same question this week, but plans to try again Monday, saying an election is the only way to break the country's deadlock over Brexit.

Opponents don't want to agree to a vote unless they can ensure Johnson can't take Britain out of the EU as scheduled on Oct. 31 without a divorce agreement in place, as he has threatened to do so.

After discussions Friday, opposition lawmakers said they would not back an election until the government asked the EU to delay Brexit. Johnson says he would "rather be dead in a ditch" than do that.

The parties said they would either vote against Johnson's motion or abstain on Monday.

Parliament is in the midst of passing an opposition-backed law that would compel the Conservative government to seek a three-month Brexit postponement if no divorce deal is agreed by late October. The bill is likely to become law by Monday, and many pro-EU lawmakers want to hold off on triggering an election until it is set in stone, fearing Johnson will try to wriggle out of the commitment.

"I do not trust the prime minister to do his duty," said Liz Saville Roberts, leader in Parliament of the Welsh party Plaid Cymru.

She said lawmakers needed to be sitting in Parliament in late October, rather than on the campaign trail, to ensure Britain does not crash out of the EU. That makes an election before November unlikely.

"We need to make sure that we get past the 31st of October," she said.

It's a risky strategy for the opposition, which could be accused of denying the public its say.

Ian Blackford, leader in Parliament of the Scottish National Party, said he was "desperate for an election," but only after Britain had secured a delay to Brexit.

Johnson said he had "never known an opposition in the history of democracy that's refused to have an election."

"I think obviously they don't trust the people, they don't think that the people will vote for them, so they're refusing to have an election," he said.

It's unclear what options Johnson has if he loses Monday's vote. He could call a no-confidence vote in his own government, which would only need a simply a majority to pass. He could try to change the law that governs how elections can be triggered. He could even resign.

In short, it's a mess.

Johnson became prime minister in July after promising Conservatives that he would complete Brexit and break the impasse that has paralyzed Britain's politics since voters decided in June 2016 to leave the bloc and which brought down his predecessor, Theresa May.

After only six weeks in office, however, his plans are in crisis. The EU refuses to renegotiate the deal it struck with May, which has been rejected three times by Britain's Parliament.

Johnson's push to leave the EU by Halloween come what may is facing stiff opposition, both in Parliament and in the courts. Most economists say a no-deal Brexit would cause severe economic disruption and plunge the U.K. into recession.

On Friday, Britain's High Court rejected a claim that Johnson is acting unlawfully in suspending Parliament for several weeks ahead of the country's scheduled departure from the EU.

Johnson enraged his opponents by announcing he would send lawmakers home at some point next week until Oct. 14, just over two weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU. Critics accused him of subverting democracy and carrying out a "coup."

Transparency campaigner Gina Miller took the government to court, arguing the suspension was an "unlawful abuse of power."

A panel of three High Court judges ruled against her, but said the case can be appealed to the Supreme Court, which has set a hearing for Sept. 17.

Outside court, Miller said she was disappointed with the ruling but "pleased that the judges have given us permission to appeal to the Supreme Court."

"To give up now would be a dereliction of our responsibility," she said. "We need to protect our institutions. It is not right that they should be shut down or bullied, especially at this momentous time in our history."

With the date set for Brexit just 55 days away, EU officials say it seems increasingly likely Britain will depart without an agreement.

"The situation in Britain is quite a mess now and we don't know what is happening there," said Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

"It seems very obvious that we are not getting Brexit with an agreement," he said. 

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