LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to kick off what is in effect an election campaign casting parliament as the enemy of Brexit was overshadowed on Thursday when his younger brother quit the government, citing the national interest.
As the United Kingdom spins towards an election, Brexit remains up in the air more than three years after Britons voted to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum. Options range from a turbulent ‘no-deal’ exit to abandoning the whole endeavour.
Ahead of a speech in northern England where the prime minister was expected to begin an informal election campaign, his own brother, Jo, resigned as a junior business minister and said he was stepping down as a lawmaker for their Conservative Party.
“In recent weeks I’ve been torn between family loyalty and the national interest – it’s an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles,” he tweeted.
The 47-year-old, who campaigned to remain a member of the EU in the 2016 referendum while his older brother was the face of Vote Leave, has been in parliament since 2010, serving in several ministerial roles.
The move comes in a frenetic week for the premier, who said his brother had been “a brilliant, talented minister and a fantastic MP”, and that the decision would not have been easy.
After wresting control of the lower house of parliament on Wednesday, an alliance of opposition parties and rebels expelled from Johnson’s Conservative party voted to force him to seek a three-month delay to Brexit rather than leaving without a deal on Oct. 31, the date now set in law.
“TRUST THE PEOPLE”
Since taking office in July, Boris Johnson has tried to corral the Conservative Party, which is openly fighting over Brexit, behind his strategy of leaving the European Union on Oct. 31 at all costs, with or without a deal.
On Tuesday, he expelled 21 Conservative lawmakers from the party for failing to back his strategy, including Winston Churchill’s grandson and two former finance ministers.
Behind the sound and the fury of the immediate crisis, an election now beckons for a polarised country.
The main choices on offer are Johnson’s insistence on leaving the EU on Oct. 31, come what may, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left socialist vision, coupled with a promise of a fresh referendum with an option to stay in the EU.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who manages government business in the House of Commons, said parliament would be asked again on Monday, after the blocking bill becomes law, to approve a snap election. On Wednesday, lawmakers had rejected Johnson’s request for an Oct. 15 poll.
The Brexit crisis has for three years overshadowed European Union affairs, eroded Britain’s reputation as a stable pillar of the West and seen sterling lunge back and forth in tune to the probability of a ‘no-deal’ exit.
Asked if Brexit would happen on Oct. 31, Johnson’s belligerent senior adviser Dominic Cummings, a focus of many departing Conservative lawmakers’ grievances, told Reuters: “Trust the people.”
A spokesman for the prime minister said his speech would make the case that “it is now time for the people to decide after parliament has failed them, so we can resolve this once and for all”.
“Jeremy Corbyn continues not only to block Brexit but is now also stopping the people having their say by refusing a general election.”
The opposition Labour Party cast Johnson’s language – including calling Corbyn a “chicken” – as pathetic, said he was trying to act like US President Donald Trump, and compared him to a 3-year-old toddler having a tantrum.
Against the dollar, the pound rose 0.8% to $1.2353, after jumping 1.4% on Wednesday on the sense that the prospect of a ‘no-deal’ exit had receded. UBS Global Wealth Management said sterling could rally to $1.30 if Brexit was delayed until January 2020 and an election was held after October.
Opposition parties say they are in favour of an election in principle, but were on Thursday debating whether or not to accept Johnson’s proposed date of Oct. 15 – before Britain is due to leave the EU.
While sterling rose on parliament’s bid to block a no-deal exit, an election before Brexit would allow Johnson, if he won, to repeal the blocking bill. The law will pass the upper house, the Lords, by Friday evening.
Diplomats said an election campaign would halt any Brexit talks with the EU and expressed frustration with the turmoil in British politics at such an important juncture in European history.
In particular, they said London had yet to make any meaningful proposals to address Johnson’s complaints about the divorce settlement that his predecessor Teresa May agreed with the EU but failed to get through parliament at home.
“The UK side continues to produce chaos and it is very hard to predict anything,” said one EU diplomat.