Boris Johnson has paved the way for an acrimonious “people versus parliament” general election with a defiant defence of his Brexit strategy, in which he refused to take any blame for his historic defeat in the Supreme Court.
On a day of bitter debate in the House of Commons, which was recalled after Britain’s highest court overturned the prime minister’s attempt to suspend it for five weeks, he claimed MPs were trying to “sabotage” Brexit and “surrendering” to Brussels.
Cheered on by Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson used his legal defeat as a springboard for political attack, claiming that MPs had “run to the courts” instead of having the courage to take him on at a general election.
The prime minister, who spoke without any note of contrition during the three-hour debate, challenged opposition parties to table a vote of no-confidence in him on Thursday and “face the day of reckoning with the voters”.
Mr Johnson accused opposition MPs of “sabotaging” Brexit negotiations and set the scene for an eventual election in which he hopes to present himself as the defender of 17.4m Leave voters against a Remain establishment.
In a sometimes ugly debate, Labour’s Paula Sherriff raised the murder in 2016 of MP Jo Cox and asked Mr Johnson to stop using “dangerous” language like “Surrender Act” to describe legislation passed recently to stop a no-deal exit.
Mr Johnson replied to Labour protests: “I never heard such humbug in all my life.” He caused further anger when he said: “The best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox and, indeed the best way to bring the country together, would be to get Brexit done.”
Tracy Brabin, who succeeded Ms Cox as MP for Batley and Spen, said: “His language has an effect. It is not humbug. We are not collaborators, betrayers or surrendering to the EU.”
Mr Johnson’s comments enraged female MPs in particular and Anna Soubry, a former Tory MP, said she had been reduced to tears by the provocative language used by Mr Johnson.
Brendan Cox, Ms Cox’s widower, tweeted: “Feel a bit sick at Jo’s name being used in this way.
“The best way to honour Jo is for all of us (no matter our views) to stand up for what we believe in, passionately and with determination. But never to demonise the other side and always hold onto what we have in common.”
Mr Johnson said he respected the verdict of the Supreme Court in overturning the five-week suspension of parliament, which the 11 justices said was an “extreme” attempt to stop MPs doing their job.
But he said: “The court was wrong to pronounce on what [was] essentially a political question at a time of great national controversy.”
Mr Johnson’s assertion that parliament was “gridlocked and paralysed” was an accurate reflection of the corrosive stand-off that has developed at Westminster.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, said that his party would not back an early election, or table a no-confidence motion, until Mr Johnson had negotiated in Brussels an extension to the Article 50 process, delaying Brexit well beyond October 31.
Mr Johnson on the other hand has refused to countenance any extension, and insisted that Britain would leave the EU with or without a deal — even though a law now exists that aims to stop such an occurrence.
Unless the prime minister can negotiate a Brexit deal, a combination of parliament and the courts are likely to force him to seek an extension. Many opposition MPs relish the prospect of Mr Johnson being put in that humiliating position.
The disintegration of Mr Johnson’s “do or die” push for Brexit on October 31 — with or without a deal — has left him weakened in his negotiations with Brussels, with EU leaders preparing to take a tough stance as detailed talks loom.
One EU diplomat said leaders would want clear assurances from Mr Johnson that he had the numbers in the Commons to push through any revised deal. Given the prime minister’s recent run of six defeats in six votes, they are highly sceptical.
Both sides are far apart, with no progress at all on the big outstanding issue of a future customs arrangement for Northern Ireland. “We have been asking them to build a fireproof home, and he’s offering an inflammable tent,” said one EU diplomat.
Senior Tories say that Mr Johnson, who has vowed not to seek a delay to Brexit, has no escape apart from getting a deal in Brussels and that EU leaders can sense his weakness.
“This has weakened Boris, no doubt about it,” said one former cabinet minister. “The risk from his point of view is that the EU sits tight and pushes him into an extension and then waits to see what happens next.”
Mr Johnson’s refusal to countenance any extension to the Article 50 exit process has prompted some opposition MPs to discuss a new legal move to force the prime minister to seek a delay to Brexit in the next few weeks.
Chuka Umunna, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: “Just because you have an extension, it doesn’t preclude you from negotiating and trying to get a deal before October 31. It just removes the sword of Damocles hanging over the country.”
Mr Johnson’s allies fear that MPs could use their extra time in parliament in the coming days to find legislative ways of humiliating Mr Johnson or forcing his resignation by demanding he goes to Brussels to seek a Brexit delay.
Mr Johnson will on Thursday table a motion calling for a three-day recess during next week’s Conservative conference in Manchester.
Although such a break is traditional, it will be opposed this year by opposition parties who want time at Westminster to debate Brexit. Tory sources say that if the party conference was curtailed, it would hit the local economy of Labour-run Manchester.
Unlike a prorogation — a suspension of parliament using the royal prerogative — a recess has to be approved by MPs. Mr Johnson has left open the possibility of requesting another prorogation ahead of a Queen’s Speech.
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