The fate of Brexit hung in the balance on Tuesday as parliament prepared for an explosive showdown with Prime Minister Boris Johnson that could end in a snap election.
Members of Johnson’s own Conservative party are preparing to join opposition lawmakers in a vote to try to force a delay to Britain’s exit from the European Union if he cannot secure a divorce deal with Brussels in the next few weeks.
Johnson — who took office less than six weeks ago — has said he wants Britain to leave on October 31 with or without an agreement on how to end almost half a century of EU membership.
His decision to suspend parliament for over a month starting next week so that MPs do not try to hinder his progress has stirred outrage and is being challenged in three separate courts.
The pound is trading at its lowest level since 2016 on fears of the unknown that a “no-deal Brexit” can bring.
And the crisis might end up splintering Britain’s two main parties.
“If ultimately the prime minister and leader of my party is doing something which I think is so fundamentally wrong, then I can’t continue supporting it,” Dominic Grieve, a rebel Conservative MP, told BBC television.
“I simply do not see the Conservative party surviving in its current form if we continue behaving like this towards each other.”
– Jeering chants –
The technicalities over how parliament intends to stop Johnson — and how the premier can trigger an early general election if it does — are as complex as the entire Brexit saga.
Lawmakers will first try on Tuesday to take over the government’s power to determine what legislation is put up for a vote.
They will then hope to get a chance to vote on Wednesday on a bill forcing Johnson to seek a Brexit extension until January 31 if no new deal emerges at an October 17-18 EU summit.
They have even drafted the letter Johnson is supposed to present to EU Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels.
“There will be enough people for us to get this over the line,” Conservative former finance minister Philip Hammond predicted on Tuesday.
The big battle is expected to kick off with a parliamentary address by Johnson scheduled for 1430 GMT.
But he made clear on Monday that he will not let parliament tell him what to do.
“I want everybody to know — there are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay,” he defiantly said over the jeering chants of protesters outside Downing Street.
Johnson has said the chances of striking a deal have grown since the G7 summit last month but his opponents say there are no negotiations with Brussels and the most likely scenario is a no-deal Brexit.
– ‘Don’t want an election’ –
Opinion polls suggest that Johnson’s decisive approach to Brexit is popular with voters — and that an election could help him increase his wafer-thin majority in parliament.
Johnson insisted in his address to the nation that he was not seeking to disband parliament.
“I don’t want an election. You don’t want an election,” he said.
But his aides later made clear that a national poll was being pencilled in for October 14 if parliament managed to seize the initiative on Tuesday.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn vowed on Tuesday to “take the fight to the Tories” in a vote that might be held with his leftist party treading as low as fifth in the polls.
Johnson is also being challenged by the anti-establishment Brexit Party of anti-EU populist Nigal Farage.
Farage’s new political vehicle won the May European elections in Britain and is still enjoying mass support.
Farage on Monday demanded that Johnson back a “clean break” with Europe.
“No deal is the best deal,” he said.