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British PM Johnson Suffers Historic Brexit Defeats as Election Looms

By Henry Ridgwell September 5, 2019

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a series of damaging defeats Wednesday over the government's policy on leaving the European Union.

A coalition of opposition and Conservative lawmakers are attempting to pass legislation to prevent Britain from crashing out of the European Union with no deal on Oct. 31. The prime minister insists such a law would undermine negotiations with the bloc.

The bill was voted through the House of Commons, effectively Britain's lower chamber, with the help of 22 MPs from the ruling Conservative party who voted against the government. Among the rebels was veteran MP Nicholas Soames.

"[The bill] merely seeks to avert the immediate risks of a disaster of a no Brexit exit on the 31st of October and it thereby seeks to give the government and this House a further opportunity to achieve a resolution of this profoundly difficult issue," Soames told fellow MPs during the debate.

Soames, the grandson of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was among the 21 Conservative MPs effectively thrown out of the party for voting against the government.

Will Johnson obey the law?

The new legislation would require the prime minister to go to Brussels and ask for a Brexit extension. He has refused to do so under any circumstances. So, could the British prime minister be about to break the law? The lack of a written constitution means there is no official rulebook, says Meg Russell, a constitutional expert at University College London.

"If he were to ignore a piece of statute law, he'd have to wind up in the courts, that would have to be adjudicated in the courts. But that would be a terribly un-British thing to do. I mean, people who hold high office ought to obey the rule of law," Russell said.

Hours after his defeat, Johnson again failed in his attempt to call a general election Wednesday evening, with opposition lawmakers insisting the legislation blocking no-deal must be passed first. Johnson accused opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of cowardice.

"I think he has become to my knowledge the first leader of the opposition in the democratic history of our country to refuse the invitation to an election. 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," Johnson said amid raucous scenes in the House of Commons.

Other parliamentary shortcuts

Analysts say Johnson could use other parliamentary shortcuts, such as a simple one-line bill, to try to force an imminent election. The prime minister received backing Wednesday from his ally across the Atlantic, U.S. President Donald Trump.

"He's in there, I watched him this morning, he's in there fighting. And he knows how to win. Boris knows how to win," Trump told reporters.

So far, Johnson has lost four votes out of four in the House of Commons.

The legislation to block no-deal is being debated Thursday in Britain's upper chamber, the House of Lords, where opponents could seek to filibuster the bill. Britain's political meltdown could be turning rapidly into a constitutional crisis.

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