British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced to accept that Britain’s departure from the European Union could be delayed for another three months, putting an end to his long-held promise that Brexit would happen on Oct. 31 “do or die.”
Mr. Johnson confirmed the delay on Monday as he lost a third attempt to call a snap election on Dec. 12 as a way of resolving the Brexit impasse that has left Parliament in a stalemate and created more uncertainty about whether Britain will leave the EU with an agreement. Mr. Johnson needed the support of two-thirds of MPs to trigger an early election, but the Labour Party abstained, which meant the motion fell well short of the required consent.
The result did not deter the Prime Minister and he announced late Monday that he will try again on Tuesday to secure an early general election with the aim of winning a commanding parliamentary majority and getting his Brexit deal ratified.
“We will not allow this paralysis to continue. One way or another we must proceed straight to an election,” Mr. Johnson told members of Parliament. “This House cannot any longer keep this country hostage. Millions of families and businesses cannot plan for the future.”
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party wanted an assurance that a no-deal Brexit was “absolutely off the table” and that there was “no danger of this Prime Minister not sticking to his word … and taking this country out of the EU without any deal whatsoever, knowing the damage it will do to jobs and industries all across this country.”
It’s not clear how the standoff will end. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, Mr. Johnson can’t move the election date forward from May 5, 2022, without the support of two-thirds of MPs. And as long as Mr. Corbyn holds out, that threshold won’t be met. On Tuesday, Mr. Johnson will try to get around the two-thirds requirement by introducing a bill that would amend the act and allow for an election on Dec. 12.
That bill would require only the backing of a majority of MPs to be adopted. But Mr. Johnson’s Conservatives don’t hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons and it’s unclear whether he’ll win enough support from opposition parties. Opposition MPs could also hold up passage of the bill for weeks or introduce a plethora of changes to it, including lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, something the Conservatives oppose.
EU leaders have expressed irritation at the parliamentary deadlock and on Monday they formally agreed to extend the Brexit deadline from Oct. 31 to Jan. 31, 2020. However, Britain can leave earlier if Parliament ratifies a Brexit deal that Mr. Johnson struck with the EU earlier this month. Mr. Johnson halted ratification last week after MPs refused to speed up the process to meet the Halloween deadline.
On Monday, Mr. Johnson grudgingly accepted the delay, saying he had been forced to do so by Parliament. “I have no discretion … to do anything other than confirm the U.K.'s formal agreement to this extension,” the Prime Minister said in a letter back to European Council President Donald Tusk. He added that he believed the delay “is damaging to our democracy and to the relationship between us and our European friends” and he urged the EU to make it clear that a further extension "is not possible.”
The delay is a political setback for Mr. Johnson, who won the leadership of the Conservative Party in July by promising Britain would leave the EU on Oct. 31. At one point after becoming party leader, and Prime Minister, he said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than extend the deadline. The Conservative Party even installed a Brexit countdown clock in its headquarters and the government launched a £100-million, or $167.8-million, national advertising blitz called “Get Ready for Brexit on 31 October,” which encouraged the public and businesses to prepare for the deadline. The advertisements have now been put on hold.
During a debate in Parliament on Monday, Mr. Johnson argued that he had done his best to meet the deadline but that he’d been stymied by opposition MPs. And he said without an election to end the saga, “we are all like Charlie Brown, endlessly running up to kick the ball only to have Parliament whisk it away.”
The delay has been welcomed by some business groups who feared a no-deal Brexit could cause chaos. But they said the delay was only a stopgap. “It is crucial that politicians on all sides use this extra time to put their differences aside and work together on a solution,” said Chris Cummings, chief executive of the Investment Association, which represent financial firms.