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UK faces Brexit delay as Johnson vows to push for general election

Senior opposition figures say they are prepared to fight an election once a Brexit extension is signed-off with the EU.

Boris Johnson wants a general election if a three month Brexit delay is agreed (UK Parliament/PA)
Boris Johnson wants a general election if a three month Brexit delay is agreed (UK Parliament/PA)

By Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent

The Prime Minister has vowed to push for an election if EU leaders sanction a Brexit extension of up to three months.

Boris Johnson must now wait to hear from the heads of the EU27 after his plans to fast-track his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) through the Commons before the Halloween deadline hit the buffers.

There was anger in Downing Street after MPs rejected Mr Johnson’s plan to push through the legislation approving his deal with the EU in just three days by 322 votes to 308 – despite having given their approval, in principle, to his Brexit deal only moments beforehand.

Mr Johnson’s decision to “pause” the legislation makes his promise to take Britain out of the EU by October 31 “come what may” difficult to fulfil and means Brexit could be delayed until next year, with a general election looming.

I think that is fantasy politics to be fair because a public vote cannot occur under the current arithmetic of Parliament Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary

The Labour Party looks as if it could be prepared to back an election before agitating for a second referendum – as long as an extension with Brussels is in place.

Some in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet are said to be wary that an outright election win for Mr Johnson could lead to a no-deal Brexit.

But the opposition leader, according to a report in The Sun, is said to have told MPs they “cannot afford to turn down another election request”.

Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary, echoing his leader’s position, said there was not the support in the Commons for a referendum to take place first.

“I think that is fantasy politics to be fair because a public vote cannot occur under the current arithmetic of Parliament,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

David Linden, MP for Glasgow East, said the SNP would “relish” an election “as soon as an extension is in place”.

The dramatic result in Parliament on Tuesday – which Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said left Brexit “in purgatory” – puts the Prime Minister effectively at the mercy of EU leaders who will decide whether to grant Britain a further extension in order to pass a deal.

European Council president Donald Tusk said he would recommend they agree a further delay in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, speaking on the Today programme, said there was no guarantee the EU would grant a short extension to pass the PM’s Brexit Bill.

He said what he did know, from speaking to “key people” in Europe was that “they want this over”.

Senior Tory David Lidington, the de facto deputy prime minister when Theresa May was in office, urged the PM to put his WAB timetable to MPs one more time before going to the polls in an attempt to get Labour on-board.

Any new timetable, he told the BBC, would need an extension because there was “no way the October deadline can be met” following the defeat of the high-speed bill timetable.

“My gut instinct is to give it another go because I think even if you end up with an election then tactically to be seen to have really pressed the Labour Party to say, ‘Well, if two days is not enough then how many days actually would be sufficient for you?'” he said.

The former Europe minister said he did not think the public would “welcome an election in the run-up to Christmas” but suggested, should Mr Johnson be successful in calling one, it could happen as early as the last week of November.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Mr Johnson had begun calling EU leaders on Tuesday night to tell them he would not accept a three-month delay, but has reportedly not ruled out approving a short extension of around 10 days to allow his deal to get through Parliament.

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(PA Graphics)

A Number 10 source indicated that if the Prime Minister was forced to accept a delay until the new year, he would push for a general election instead.

“If Parliament’s delay is agreed by Brussels, then the only way the country can move on is with an election. This Parliament is broken,” the source said.

In a swipe at the unnamed “sources” briefing out of Number 10, former Tory grandee Ken Clarke said Mr Johnson should “get rid” of those briefing anonymously on his behalf.

Asked about what he made of suggestions the PM could use a one-line bill – where Mr Johnson would only need a simple majority in Parliament – to try and secure a general election, Mr Clarke said: “He should get rid of all these people who come up with these clever, usually illegal, ruses.”

The one-line bill concept has been touted because of the former mayor of London’s lack of majority, meaning it is near impossible, without opposition support, to meet the two-thirds threshold for an election that is written into the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.

Mr Clarke, who was sacked by the Conservative Party leader for voting to block no-deal, said a one-line bill would likely be amended to give votes to 16-year-olds and force changes upon the Brexit bill, making it an unlikely option for the PM.

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