/U.K.’s Johnson Brandishes Election in Bid to Stop Parliament From Foiling Brexit

U.K.’s Johnson Brandishes Election in Bid to Stop Parliament From Foiling Brexit


LONDON—The chances of an early British general election to resolve a three-year impasse over Brexit appeared to rise on Monday as Prime Minister

Boris Johnson

launched a broadside at lawmakers seeking to thwart his Brexit plans.

In a televised address Mr. Johnson appealed to members of Parliament not to back “another pointless delay” to Brexit, which has been twice delayed until Oct. 31, firing the first shots in the latest period of febrile political wrangling on which hangs how—or even whether—the U.K. will leave the European Union.

Meanwhile, his officials delivered a tougher message behind the scenes, saying an election will be called for Oct. 14 if lawmakers vote to force a delay to Brexit. The message was aimed at dissuading rebel lawmakers in Mr. Johnson’s own Conservative Party from supporting opposition efforts to prevent the U.K. from leaving the bloc on that date without a deal to smooth the transition.

According to a senior government official, Mr. Johnson told an emergency meeting of his cabinet on Monday that he would seek an election if an expected opposition effort this week to seize control of the parliamentary agenda is successful. Calling a snap poll, Downing Street believes, will stall his opponents’ bid to set up legislation to avoid a no-deal Brexit at the end of next month

“What MPs will be voting for will be to hold a rapid election,” the senior government official said. In the event that Parliament tries to seize the legislative agenda, he said, the government would seek to hold the election on Oct. 14, three days before a crucial summit with EU leaders in Brussels.

Under British parliamentary rules, a majority of lawmakers must vote in favor of an election being held.

With lawmakers returning from their summer recess on Tuesday, battle lines are being drawn up over Brexit. The fight pits lawmakers led by the prime minister arguing that the U.K. must quit the bloc on Oct. 31—without a divorce deal if necessary—against an opposing group that wants to block a no-deal exit because of the economic damage it is expected to cause.

Three years after the U.K. voted to leave the EU, the country and its main parties remain bitterly split on how to deliver on the referendum vote, creating a stalemate that has heightened business uncertainty, damaged investment and driven an outflow of financial assets.

Mr. Johnson warned on Monday that if lawmakers manage to postpone delay Brexit for a third time beyond the Oct. 31 deadline “they will plainly chop the legs out from under” U.K. negotiators seeking a better deal with the EU in Brussels. The U.K. was originally due to leave the bloc on March 29, but the exit date has been twice postponed.

“I don’t want an election; you don’t want an election,” Mr. Johnson said. But in a hint that he might call one if Parliament tied his hands, he added: “I want everybody to know that there are no circumstances in which I would ask Brussels to delay. We are leaving on the 31st of October, no ifs or buts.”

Lawmakers opposing a no-deal exit were plotting ways on Monday to force Mr. Johnson’s hand through maneuvering in the House of Commons that are expected to start on Tuesday. Their favored approach is to pass a law requiring Mr. Johnson to ask the EU for an extension of the Brexit negotiations beyond the Oct. 31 deadline, unless he secures a new deal with the EU before then, opposition party officials say.

A Majority of One

With a working majority of just a single seat, Boris Johnson is vulnerable to any revolt from within his party.

Seats by party in the U.K. Parliament

Seats by party in the U.K. Parliament

Seats by party in the U.K. Parliament

Seats by party in the U.K. Parliament

Given his Conservative Party musters a majority of just one vote in the House of Commons, Mr. Johnson is vulnerable to any revolt in his own party.

“We are working with other parties to do everything necessary to pull our country back from the brink,” opposition Labour Party leader

Jeremy Corbyn

said Monday, adding that a no-deal Brexit would cause economic disruption.

Mr. Johnson is pushing back, arguing that a majority of Britons voted to leave the EU in 2016 and their vote should be respected.

Last week, he announced Parliament would be suspended for several weeks from mid-September, reducing the amount of time for lawmakers to pass laws that could frustrate or further delay Brexit.

Over the weekend, the government said any Conservative lawmaker who votes to block a no-deal exit could be barred from standing for re-election on the party’s ticket. As many as 20 could be preparing to rebel, political observers say.

Officlals said Monday they would treat a defeat in the expected vote Tuesday to seize control of the parliamentary agenda as a “vote of confidence.” The government would bring a motion to be voted on Wednesday to bring an election on Oct. 14.

“I would say there is a 95% chance that if Parliament does not act this week we will leave without a deal,” said Conservative lawmaker

David Gauke,

a former justice minister who is against a no-deal Brexit.

Since becoming prime minister in July, Mr. Johnson has led a two-pronged approach to try to resolve Brexit. On one hand, he is trying to renegotiate a divorce deal his predecessor agreed with the EU last year. On the other, he is preparing the country to suddenly break with the EU at the end of October if improved divorce terms aren’t offered.

One possible, high-risk approach to strengthen his hand is to call for a general election himself, a step that would require the backing of two-thirds of the House of Commons.

Key to any renegotiation is finding a guarantee to ensure frictionless trade continues between Northern Ireland, which is in the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is in the EU, after Brexit.

The current divorce deal could see the U.K. locked into a customs union with the trade bloc indefinitely to ensure no hard border on the island of Ireland, a move which stops the U.K. signing its own trade deals. Mr. Johnson met several EU leaders during August and urged that this “backstop” be replaced.

So far, no compromise has been found. European Commission spokeswoman

Mina Andreeva

said Monday that talks with the U.K. are ongoing, but that the outcome “will depend on when we will receive concrete proposals” from the U.K. Over the weekend,

Michel Barnier,

who is leading the negotiations on the EU side, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper that he was “not optimistic about avoiding a no-deal scenario.”

EU officials worry Mr. Johnson doesn’t have the votes in Parliament to ratify a revised deal. So only when the dust settles on the current parliamentary fight would negotiations begin in earnest.

With the likelihood of no-deal rising, both sides are preparing to mitigate the disruption caused by the sudden implementation of trade barriers between the U.K. and the EU. The British government recently launched a large-scale advertising campaign with the slogan “Get Ready for Brexit,” and an online questionnaire to help Britons prepare themselves.

With a general election looking increasingly likely, Mr. Johnson has toured the U.K., promising fresh funds for the police and schools. He is regularly pictured in British hospitals talking up his attachment to the popular nationalized health service. So far, Mr. Johnson’s approach has translated into a bounce in the polls.

The Conservatives lead the opposition Labour Party by eight points, according to a poll of polls by Britain Elects. But with public opinion over party preferences unusually volatile as the anti-EU Liberal Democrats and the upstart Brexit Party gather significant support, an election could merely extend the Brexit impasse or lead to a government headed by Mr. Corbyn, the Labour Party’s leftwing leader.

With a parliamentary battle looming, one advantage Mr. Johnson has is that opposition lawmakers are divided. Some want a more mild form of Brexit that would keep the U.K. closely integrated with the EU. Others want to cancel Brexit altogether.

Write to Max Colchester at max.colchester@wsj.com and Jason Douglas at jason.douglas@wsj.com

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