As a law to prevent a no-deal Brexit hurtled toward passage Thursday, British lawmakers began drawing the battle lines for their next fight: when to hold a general election that is now inevitable.
Opposition lawmakers have so far blocked Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan for a mid-October election, but the government said Thursday that it would hold another parliamentary vote on an early election Monday.
That set up a significant clash over when British voters will get to decide who should handle Britain's departure from the European Union, with opposition Labour lawmakers haggling over what stage of the Brexit process gives them the best chance of wrenching control from Johnson's enfeebled government.
Johnson sees an election as the only way to create a stable majority for his Conservative Party in Parliament and secure a mandate for pulling Britain out of the European Union by October 31, with or without a deal governing future relations.
"I don't want an election at all, but frankly I cannot see any other way," he said Thursday during a speech in northern England promoting a plan to hire more police officers. "The only way to get this thing moving is to make that decision."
To keep alive the possibility of pulling Britain out of the European Union by October 31, Johnson wants to hold the election as quickly as possible. But opposition lawmakers are reluctant to let him schedule the election on his terms. Some of them reason that postponing a vote until November would force Johnson to abide by a law blocking a no-deal Brexit and to ask Brussels for a delay, thereby breaking the central promise of his tenure.
Johnson said Thursday that he "would rather be dead in a ditch" than ask for that delay.
The prime minister, fresh off purging his party of 21 of its most senior lawmakers for defying his government, received an even more personal blow to his authority Thursday when his younger brother, Jo Johnson, resigned from Parliament, suggesting that working in the prime minister's Cabinet was no longer in "the national interest."
He was also fending off calls from senior ministers in his own Cabinet to restore those 21 lawmakers to the party.
Despite his battering from all sides this week, Johnson appeared committed to putting his vaunted campaigning skills to the test.
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Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, sitting notably upright after a furore over his slouch this week, said that Parliament would hold another vote for an early election Monday. That is the same day the bill stopping a no-deal Brexit is expected to receive royal assent and become law.
The early-election vote, requiring two-thirds of lawmakers to pass, will once again depend on the support of opposition lawmakers, and Thursday it remained unclear what side they would take.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, has said repeatedly that he will not agree to an election until a law stopping a no-deal Brexit is on the books. That way, Johnson would be denied the wiggle room to, say, schedule an election after October 31 and let Britain crash out of the European Union without a deal.
Other Labour lawmakers have gone further than Corbyn and said an election should not be held until after the current departure date of October 31 passes.
They believe that would make Johnson vulnerable to attacks from right-wing parties that have insisted that Johnson not allow any delay to Brexit. They also hope a later election would let the shine off Johnson's short time in office, already fading this week, disappear completely among voters.
His government remained under attack Thursday for the damage that could follow a no-deal Brexit, especially shortages of crucial medicines. A prominent neurologist, David Nicholl, who has studied the availability of epilepsy and neurology drugs for the government, challenged Rees-Mogg this week to say how many people he would accept dying because of a no-deal Brexit.
Rees-Mogg responded in the House of Commons on Thursday by comparing Nicholl to a disgraced doctor who promoted false anti-vaccine claims. The comment drew gasps from opposition lawmakers and rebukes from prominent British doctors.
Many Conservatives were also still stewing over Johnson's decision to purge the party of lawmakers who defied his threats and voted to stop a no-deal Brexit, among them Tory stalwarts like Ken Clarke, a lawmaker since 1970, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Johnson's hero, Winston Churchill, who has served in Parliament for 37 years.
And Johnson's first boisterous debates in the House of Commons have not helped his cause. Analysts have long believed his improvisational style and loose grip of the facts would serve him poorly at the despatch box, where prime ministers field questions from the opposition, but critics said he looked particularly weak at times this week.
True to form for a politician known to put his foot in his mouth, Johnson lashed out amid a barrage of attacks from the opposition, appearing at one point to say to Corbyn, "Call an election, you great big girl's blouse." His opponents quickly called the comment sexist and unbecoming of a prime minister.
Some members of the Labour Party believe Johnson has already hurt his election chances with early missteps, along with his provocative decision to shut down Parliament for five weeks. Those lawmakers, sanguine about the party's chances despite poor poll numbers, prefer a mid-October election, reasoning that the best way to guarantee that Britain does not leave the bloc without a deal is to kick Johnson out of office as soon as possible.
John McDonnell, a senior Labour lawmaker who speaks for the opposition on finance matters, said in a radio interview Thursday that his party was still considering how to lock in an election date that eliminated the threat of a no-deal Brexit.
Opposition lawmakers in favor of the bill stopping a no-deal Brexit had feared that the House of Lords, an unelected body that acts as upper house of Parliament, could filibuster its passage. But after hours of debate, allies of Johnson in the House of Lords relented early Thursday, allowing the bill to advance through the chamber by the end of the week.
Written by: Benjamin Mueller
Photographs by: Andrew Testa
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