London, UK – For the third time in two days, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suffered a major parliamentary defeat as his bid to call an election next month was easily thwarted late on Wednesday.
Johnson’s Conservative Party failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to call a snap election, mustering only 298 of the 434 votes required.
Given the size of the rebellion, and the subsequent lack of numbers on the government’s benches, most opponents abstained from voting, with just 56 opposition politicians actively opposing his bid to head to the polls in the coming weeks.
After the vote went badly against him, he chided opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn before MPs.
“I think [Corbyn] has become the first opposition leader in the history of our country to refuse the invitation to head to a general election,” said Johnson. “I can only speculate as to the reasons behind his hesitation, the obvious conclusion is I’m afraid that he does not think he will win.”
Downing Street insisted Johnson would not resign to force a general election after losing control of the House of Commons a day earlier, resulting in a defeat that allowed the opposition, led by Corbyn’s Labour party, to attempt to block a “no-deal” withdrawal from the European Union.
A “rebel alliance” of 21 Conservative MPs were kicked out of the party on Tuesday night after siding with the opposition. They had taken issue with Johnson’s plan to suspend parliament for five weeks ahead of the Brexit deadline on October 31, allowing the clock to run down towards the legal default of leaving the bloc without a divorce deal in place.
Many economists, business leaders, health sector administrators and political analysts had said such a situation would hurt EU economies, but would be disastrous for the UK, leading to shortages of medicine and fresh food – among other consequences.
The Conservatives were subsequently seeking a general election to wrest back control ahead of a key European Council summit in mid-October.
If victorious, Johnson and his advisers believed he would have a mandate to fulfil his pledge to take Britain out of the EU on October 31, deal or no deal, and would be able to repeal any new law stemming from Wednesday’s legislation attempting to delay Brexit.
But with no majority and a seemingly united opposition, it has become clear Johnson is now unable to govern with parliament in its current form, and an election seems inevitable, sooner or later.
For the past few years, the Labour party has also sought a general election. The Liberal Democrats, also enjoying a resurgence in fortunes after being nearly wiped out at the ballot box following a stint in a coalition government with the Conservatives, would also like an election. But neither party supported Johnson’s call to bring the country to the polls at this time.
Under legislation brought in under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who sparked the Brexit crisis by calling the in-out EU membership referendum in 2016 in a bid to unite the Conservative party, a bid to call an early election needs the support of two-thirds of the parliament.
Fundamentally, Boris Johnson’s problem is that nobody on the opposition benches, and a lot of people within his own party, simply don’t believe anything he says
Chris Wilkins, Theresa May speechwriter
“Boris Johnson is not trusted in parliament and we have to make sure he doesn’t try to play any tricks,” the Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader Ed Davey told Al Jazeera.
“We want an election for our own partisan purposes,” he added. “The reason we want to delay just a few weeks is we don’t trust Boris Johnson, and we want to make sure ‘no deal’ cannot happen. This is not the time yet for a general election – maybe quite soon – but we want to make sure the crash out can’t happen.
“We want to put the national interest ahead of our party interest.”
Johnson’s perceived problem with truthfulness persists beyond parliament.
“Boris has been asked so many times ‘What’s your plan?’ – and he refuses to publish it,” said Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from London.
“And so many on the European negotiating side have said there is no plan. So then when he stands up in parliament and says there is a plan, people just think he’s a liar.”
Chris Wilkins was a speechwriter for former prime minister Theresa May.
“The big issue at the heart of all of this is a lack of trust,” he told Al Jazeera. “Fundamentally, Boris Johnson’s problem is that nobody on the opposition benches, and a lot of people within his own party, simply don’t believe anything he says – and that’s a massive problem for a prime minister with no majority to play with.”
The divisions in the Conservative Party over Europe have been long-held.
“These are unprecedented times, I’ve never known anything like it,” said Wilkins.
“There has been a civil war over Europe brewing in the Conservative Party for 30 to 40 years, and this week it has broken out, fully into the open. And the prime minister has picked a side – he’s picked the side of the Brexiteers, the people who are anti-Europe, and that means he is kicking out of the party people who are traditional one-nation conservatives. And people are looking at that and saying ‘look we’re not going to stand for this’.”