Brexit: Johnson’s room for political manoeuvre narrows

Resignation of prime minister’s brother adds to dreadful week for beleaguered Tory chief

British prime minister Boris Johnson had not prepared a speech and seemed to grasp at words and concepts almost at random when he spoke against a backdrop of police recruits in Wakefield. Photograph: Getty

British prime minister Boris Johnson had not prepared a speech and seemed to grasp at words and concepts almost at random when he spoke against a backdrop of police recruits in Wakefield. Photograph: Getty

 

The uniformed West Yorkshire police cadets who formed the backdrop for Boris Johnson had been standing in the sun for more than an hour before the prime minister arrived, late and unprepared. The cadets, who started training four weeks ago, had been told to appear for an inspection and they were relieved to be lining up for Johnson rather than their superintendent.

The prime minister had not prepared a speech and when he spoke he seemed to grasp at words and concepts almost at random.

“Policing safe streets is the absolute bedrock of society,” he said. “It’s what drives a successful and productive economy. It gives people the confidence to invest and to improve their neighbourhoods.”

This would have been the first day of a general election campaign if Johnson had won the two-thirds majority he needed to trigger a poll under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Instead it was the worst day of an already catastrophic week marked by the prime minister losing one vote after another in the House of Commons, along with his parliamentary majority and 22 Conservative MPs.

About lunchtime on Thursday he lost the support of his brother Jo Johnson, who resigned as universities minister because he could no longer reconcile “family loyalty and the national interest”.

At the police academy in Wakefield, the prime minister sought to put a brave face on this vote of no confidence from his brother, describing him as “a fantastic guy” who had been a great minister.

“Jo doesn’t agree with me about the European Union because it is an issue that obviously divides families and divides everybody. But I think what Jo would agree is that we need to get on and sort this thing out,” he said.

Johnson said he would rather “die in a ditch” than write a letter to the EU requesting a delay to Brexit beyond October 31st. But by next Monday, a law will be on the statute books requiring him to do just that if he has not secured a withdrawal deal by October 19th.

The prime minister on Thursday accused Jeremy Corbyn of seeking to prolong Britain’s membership of the EU while refusing to face voters in the general election Johnson wants to hold on October 15th.

“I really don’t see how we can have a situation where the British ability to negotiate is absolutely torpedoed by parliament in this way with powers of the British people handed over to Brussels so we can be kept incarcerated in the EU without that actually being put to the people in the form of a vote,” said Johnson. 

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said on Thursday that the government would try again next Monday to trigger an election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. But Corbyn and other opposition leaders are considering alternative options that would ensure the election would take place after October 19th when the prime minister would have to seek an article 50 extension.

One option is to vote no confidence in the government, which would trigger a 14-day period during which an alternative government could be formed. If no new government is formed by then, an election would take place 25 days later. That would mean going to the polls on October 29th, two days before Britain is due to leave the EU.

Under pressure: British prime minister Boris Johnson said he would rather 'die in a ditch' than write a letter to the EU requesting a delay to Brexit beyond October 31st. Photograph: Getty

By the time Johnson finished taking questions from reporters in Wakefield, one of the police cadets felt so faint she had to sit down. The spectacle of uniformed police trainees standing behind Johnson as he made an overtly party political speech outraged opposition politicians, including Labour’s Yvette Cooper.

“For Boris Johnson to make so many police stop their training and work to be part of his political stunt is an abuse of power. Police officers and trainees are overstretched and need to be able to get on with their job, not have to waste time listening to Boris Johnson’s political press conference,” she said.

“For Boris Johnson to draw so many of them into a long, election-driven event like this is completely inappropriate and it is unfair on the people of West Yorkshire who are entitled to expect that their police are allowed to get on with the job of working and training to keep them safe.”

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