London – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent a message to rebels within his own party, telling them to vote against what he called a “pointless” opposition plan to block his bid to suspend Parliament.
Chants of “stop the coup” could be heard in Downing Street on Monday as the prime minister spoke – ostensibly to the nation, but mostly to the 22 Conservative MPs thought to be considering voting with opposition figures.
“We will not accept any attempt to go back on our promises or scrub that referendum,” Johnson said. “Armed and fortified with that conviction, I believe we will get a deal at that crucial [European Council] summit in October.”
But more signs of dissent have emerged with former Justice Minister David Gauke telling The Times in a newspaper column that he intends to vote against his party on Tuesday.
“The national interest must come first. Leaving the EU without a deal on October 31 would damage our prosperity, security and risk the integrity of the United Kingdom,” Gauke wrote.
“Today I will vote against my party’s whip for the first time in over 14 years as a member of parliament.”
At the 10 Downing Street meeting, Johnson opened his address stating again how his government would go on a spending spree on traditional vote-winning issues, including boosting police numbers, upgrading hospitals, and investing in schools.
Such talk will do little to dampen expectations of a forthcoming general election, rumoured for October 14. Even with an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party – which cost former Prime Minister Theresa May as much as one billion pounds ($1.2bn) in extra funding for Northern Ireland – Johnson’s parliamentary majority is just one.
With so many rebels on his own benches, it will be difficult for him to continue to govern.
‘Sword of Damocles’
Johnson said the notion that Tory rebels could “chop the legs out from under the UK position” by blocking a “no-deal” Brexit was like a “sword of Damocles” hanging above the heads of negotiators.
What seems likely to be a pivotal week in British history began with a cat-and-mouse game between backers and opponents of Johnson’s plan to suspend parliament.
“They keep trying to outflank each other,” said Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from London.
“Things are likely to come to a conclusion soon, but it’s overwhelmingly likely that there will have to be a national election.”
He’s calling the bluff of the Tory rebels … An interesting line, but I don’t think it’s going to have much impact
John Johnston, Politics Home
With Johnson’s pledge to leave the European Union with or without a deal – “do or die” in his own words – on or before October 31, parliamentarians and activists have been working to counter the threat they deem is posed by a no-deal Brexit.
Last week, six opposition parties, led by the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, united in saying they would propose legislation forcing Johnson to seek an extension to the withdrawal deadline, allowing further time for either renegotiation of an exit deal, a vote of no-confidence in the Johnson administration, a general election, a second referendum on EU membership, or some combination of the options.
Days later, Johnson sought – and received – permission from Queen Elizabeth II to suspend Parliament for five weeks, severely limiting the timetable available for any legislative bid to block a no-deal.
The plan sparked furious protests across the UK, with tens of thousands gathering in cities for rallies on Saturday.
On Sunday, Michael Gove, a key Johnson aide and a former Lord Chancellor – the role responsible for overseeing the nation’s justice system and independence of the courts – refused to rule out the possibility the British government would simply ignore any anti-no-deal legislation that managed to get passed in the brief window of parliamentary business between MPs returning from their summer holidays on Tuesday and the likely shuttering of Parliament less than a week later.
“It would be very helpful if the government could clarify that they believe in the rule of law,” David Gauke, another former Lord Chancellor and senior Conservative MP, told BBC radio on Monday, as Conservative rebels began lining up to voice opposition to the government’s position.
As it appeared likely any opposition bid could have the necessary number of backers to succeed, Johnson called an emergency cabinet meeting amid rumours an election would soon be called.
Senior government sources on Monday said any Conservative parliamentarian voting against the government would have the party whip removed – essentially kicking them out of the party and preventing them from standing as a Conservative in any forthcoming election.
Images from a Reuters News Agency helicopter showed the cabinet meeting had descended after Johnson’s speech into a garden party, with waiters distributing drinks on silver platters.
Johnson said there were “no circumstances” in which he would ask the EU for a delay to the UK’s departure date.
“He’s calling the bluff of Tory rebels,” John Johnston of Politics Home told Al Jazeera.
“He pretty much put it to them that if they vote for this, they would be the cause of a general election. An interesting line, but I don’t think it’s going to have much impact on the Tory rebels.”
If, as expected, legislation blocking Johnson’s plan is passed in the House of Commons within the next two days and Johnson calls for a general election, he will need two-thirds of the legislature to agree.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair on Monday warned the opposition Labour Party of falling into Johnson’s “elephant trap” by accepting a general election before prioritising a new referendum on EU membership.
Anything could happen in the next 48 hours.