Boris Johnson has raised the stakes over Brexit by threatening to call an October 14 general election if rebel Tory MPs join forces with Labour on Tuesday to “chop the legs out” from under his negotiating strategy.
Mr Johnson’s ultimatum sets up a day of drama at Westminster as MPs return to the Commons from their summer recess and vote on whether to seize control of the Brexit process from the prime minister.
About 15-20 Conservative MPs could work with Labour and other opposition parties to seize control of the Commons agenda and pass an emergency law to stop Mr Johnson taking Britain out of the EU without a deal.
The prime minister will meet Tory MPs in the coming hours to try to head off the rebellion but if the anti-no-deal group, led by former chancellor Philip Hammond, holds firm, Mr Johnson faces defeat. Mr Johnson’s allies believe the vote on Tuesday will be “tight”.
Mr Johnson said the move would “wreck” his negotiating strategy because other EU leaders would think that parliament was determined to halt Brexit. He has threatened to purge Tory rebels from the party.
But after an emergency cabinet meeting, Mr Johnson addressed the nation in Downing Street to further raise the pressure on the rebels, making it clear that he would reluctantly hold an election rather than seek any further “pointless” delay to Brexit.
“I want everybody to know there are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay,” he said. Speaking over the chants of protesters, the prime minister added: “We are leaving on October 31, no ifs or buts.”
Mr Johnson said that if MPs voted on Tuesday to take control of the Commons order paper with a view to legislating against a no-deal exit, his attempt to strike a better withdrawal treaty would be wrecked.
“If they do, they will plainly chop the legs out from under the UK position and make any further negotiation absolutely impossible,” he said.
Mr Johnson’s allies confirmed that the cabinet had approved moves to hold a general election on October 14 if the government were defeated on Tuesday and would publish a motion paving the way for an early poll.
The prime minister would require the support of two-thirds of MPs to enable him to call an early election under the Fixed Term Parliaments act. His aides believe he could win the poll, campaigning to deliver Brexit against opposition party “wreckers”.
Labour has said that it wants an early poll but will demand guarantees from Mr Johnson that the vote would take place before Brexit day on October 31, so that the prime minister does not try to execute a no-deal exit in the middle of an election campaign.
Mr Johnson insists that if he is forced to call an election he would hold it in mid-October, allowing him to seek a new mandate from the electorate to seek a better exit deal at the European Council on October 17-18 or leave without a deal.
The key Commons vote will happen on Tuesday when MPs vote on whether to take control of the parliamentary agenda to pass the emergency Brexit legislation. If that happens Mr Johnson would try on Wednesday to trigger an election.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, will host a cross-party meeting of MPs on Tuesday morning to finalise tactics.
Mr Johnson would frame an October poll as a “people versus parliament” general election, in which he would put the Tories firmly on the side of the 52 per cent who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
He would effectively rebrand the Conservatives as “the Brexit party”, neutralising Nigel Farage’s own party, and try to label Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens as parties trying to block the Leave vote.
The battle lines were drawn at 5.30pm on Monday when MPs from the so-called “Rebel Alliance” published their long-awaited bill intended to stop Mr Johnson leading Britain out of the EU without a deal on October 31 — the focus of this week’s parliamentary showdown.
The bill, sponsored by former Tory ministers Mr Hammond, David Gauke and Alistair Burt and a range of opposition MPs, would force Mr Johnson to seek a delay to Brexit until January 31 if no new exit deal had been agreed by October 19.
Mr Johnson’s allies said the bill was “totally unacceptable”. It includes a controversial clause committing Mr Johnson to accepting whatever extension to the Article 50 exit process is offered by the EU27.