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U.K. lawmakers reject snap election, dealing another blow to PM Boris Johnson

“The country must now decide whether the leader of the opposition or I go to those negotiations in Brussels,” Boris Johnson said.
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LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has had two epically bad days.

Johnson failed in his bid to hold new elections Wednesday — one of two blows to his plans to have Britain exit the E.U, by Oct 31, “do or die.”

Johnson's call for new elections fell short of the two-thirds majority required under U.K. law; 298 voted for an election vs 56 against but this was short of the number he needed.

The prime minister criticized Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's main opposition Labour Party, after a majority of the party's members abstained from the vote.

"I think he has become the first, to my knowledge, the first leader of the opposition in the democratic history of our country to refuse the invitation to an election, Mr. Speaker," Johnson said. "I can only speculate as to the reasons behind his hesitation. The obvious conclusion is, I’m afraid, that he does not think he will win."

Lawmakers also passed a bill forcing Johnson to ask the E.U. to delay Brexit until January if there is no divorce agreement by the October deadline.

They hope to have the bill passed into law by the start of next week.

Johnson also asked lawmakers to back his call for a snap election on Oct. 15, saying "there is only one way forward for the country" — a vote to determine who should govern.

“The country must now decide whether the leader of the opposition or I go to those negotiations in Brussels on the 17th of October to sort this out,” Johnson said, referring to crunch Brexit talks in the Belgian capital.

Johnson has been "painted into a corner" with the latest round of Parliamentary blockades, Tony Travers, professor in the department of government at the London School of Economics, told NBC News.

"He can’t deliver a no deal Brexit and he can’t hold a general election," Travers said. "He risks being trapped into being stuck in power without being able to deliver his key pledge to deliver Brexit."

The vote followed a fiery, and sometimes acrimonious, debate in which some lawmakers directly attacked the prime minister.

Many lawmakers say they want a snap election to get rid of Johnson, but only after they force him by law to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline if there is no deal by Oct 31.

"Let this bill pass and gain royal assent. Then we will back an election so we do not crash out with a no deal exit from the European Union," Corbyn said.

Johnson became prime minister only six weeks ago, and the vote Wednesday was his second major defeat on only his third day of Parliament.

The vote was a prime example of how British politics have been paralyzed by the question of how and when the U.K. should leave the E.U. — an issue that has obsessed the country since the June 2016 referendum approving Brexit amid a surge of anti-establishment anger.

On one side are those who argue that being a member of the E.U. has led to decades of peace and prosperity. And most economists believe leaving the union without agreements covering trade, immigration and other issues will do great harm to the economy.

Critics of staying in the bloc say that membership erodes U.K. sovereignty and the ability to cut valuable deals with other countries, and that the E.U.’s open borders have led to a dangerously large influx of migrants to the U.K.

The debate over Brexit — and whether to leave regardless of an agreement — has consumed a number of the ruling Conservatives’ leading lights, including former Prime Minister David Cameron, who stepped down after calling for the 2016 referendum to resolve a debate long roiling the party. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, also resigned after failing to win support for the exit deal she painstakingly negotiated with the E.U.

Johnson came to power promising to drive Brexit through, deal or no deal, banish “negativity” and make the U.K. the “greatest country on earth.”

But on Tuesday, he lost his slim one-vote majority when a member of his Conservative Party defected to the opposition Liberal Democrats on live TV, making the passage of the government’s Brexit proposals through Parliament all but impossible.

Image: Nicholas Soames walks in Westminster on Tuesday.
Nicholas Soames walks in Westminster on Tuesday.Simon Dawson / Reuters

Later, Ken Clarke, the longest sitting British lawmaker in the House of Commons, former Treasury chief Philip Hammond and Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill — Johnson's political idol and the subject of one of his books — were among the 21 Conservatives expelled from the party for voting to wrest control of the parliamentary agenda away from Johnson’s government.

“I am truly very sad that it should end in this way, and it is my most fervent hope that this house will rediscover the spirit of compromise, humility and understanding that will enable us finally to push ahead with the vital work in the interests of the whole country,” a choked-up Soames told Parliament earlier on Wednesday.

Membership of the E.U. has also divided the opposition Labour Party, which has been accused of zig-zagging on Brexit.

Britain’s latest parliamentary maneuvers threaten to further divide an already polarized country, corrode the Conservative Party and roil a faltering economy. On Tuesday the pound fell below the $1.20 mark for the first time since 2017 before recovering slightly.

The Conservative rebels and Britain’s opposition parties have only until next Tuesday, Sept. 10, to block Brexit without an E.U. deal after Johnson’s government last month dramatically reduced the length of Parliament’s current session.