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Lawmakers Seize Control Of Parliamentary Agenda To Try And Block No-Deal Brexit


It has been another extraordinary day in British politics...


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Whose Parliament? Our Parliament. Whose Parliament? Our Parliament.

SHAPIRO: ...Extraordinary both for Britain's Parliament and for Brexit. A rebel alliance of lawmakers grabbed control of the legislative agenda from Prime Minister Boris Johnson. They plan to vote tomorrow to block Johnson from crashing the United Kingdom out of the European Union with no deal at the end of October. After losing tonight's vote, the prime minister threatened to call for a general election.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: The people of this country will have to choose, Mr. Speaker. The leader of the opposition has been begging for an election for two years. He has crowds of supporters outside, calling for an election. I don't want an election. But if MPs vote tomorrow to stop negotiations and to compel another pointless delay to Brexit, potentially for years, then that would be the only way to resolve this.

SHAPIRO: Johnson hopes that voters would help break the deadlock that has paralyzed British politics for the last three years.

NPR's Frank Langfitt in London has been covering this for the last three years and is with us once again. Frank, let's start with these parliamentary moves tonight. What happened? And what does it mean?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Yeah. Ari, what happened tonight is this was a rebellion against Boris Johnson. And in the British system, prime minister controls the agenda of Parliament. And what happened this evening is the opposition Labour Party and Johnson's - members of Johnson's own Conservative Party turned on him to take control of the agenda. Johnson lost this vote by 27 votes. It's his first vote as a new prime minister. He really got whacked, frankly.

And tomorrow, what we think's going to happen is they're going to pass a law to force Johnson to go back to Brussels to get a new Brexit withdrawal agreement, which seems highly unlikely, or force him to ask for another extension, which is something Boris Johnson says he would never want to do. He's been against it. And so that's where we are this evening. We're going to see what happens tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: It's a really inauspicious way to start his time as prime minister. And Johnson was, like, threatening members of his own party not to oppose him even as they voted against him, right?

LANGFITT: He was. I mean - and that's what, I think, makes this defeat even more humiliating and embarrassing for him, Ari. He threatened to kick major political figures out of the party if they voted against him. These are household names with careers in the Conservative Party for decades. Many people saw it as quite ruthless, and, of course, these people defied him.

And it was really interesting - as Johnson rose to speak today in the House of Commons earlier this afternoon, one member of his party, Ari, actually got up, stood up and quit the party right there and walked over and joined the Liberal Democrats...


LANGFITT: ...Which means Johnson hasn't been in office very long, and he's already lost his working majority. He has no way of passing bills without opposition support right now.

SHAPIRO: Well, Johnson's opponents refer to him as an unelected leader, and so the prime minister is threatening, OK, let's have an election. When might that happen? And what is his strategy there?

LANGFITT: Yeah, Ari. So Johnson says he wants an election on October 14. That's just two weeks before the U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU. Under what's called the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, he'd need a two-thirds vote from Parliament to approve the move. But he also might be able to put in a bill if he - but he'd have to get a specific date. It's a little tricky to know exactly how he's going to do this. Actually, Johnson's strategy - he needs to get a sizable majority. He just lost his majority today. What he hopes is if he has more members of Parliament, he can either ram through a no-deal Brexit with a new Parliament or get Parliament to back some kind of deal with Brussels. Now, in order to get a new election, one thing he has to do is actually - he may have to go to the Labour Party and ask for support. Even though they have been clamoring for this, it's not entirely clear that they will give him support because they just don't trust him.

SHAPIRO: Well, as you say, Labour has said they want an election. Just in our last 20 seconds or so, what are they saying tonight?

LANGFITT: Well, tonight, what Jeremy Corbyn simply said is, let's get this bill through to stop a no-deal Brexit, and we'll go from there. So he was being very cautious tonight, and he didn't take Johnson's bait.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London.

Thank you once again.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.