Johnson loses working majority ahead of Commons Brexit showdown

Boris Johnson's working majority in the Commons has been wiped out just hours before a crunch vote on Brexit.

The Prime Minister is desperately trying to fight off a Tory revolt over measures aimed at blocking him from taking the UK out of the European Union without a Brexit deal on October 31.

But his task became even more difficult after former minister Phillip Lee dramatically defected to the Liberal Democrats, crossing the floor of the Commons as Mr Johnson delivered a statement to MPs.

The Prime Minister has signalled he will try to call a snap general election if he is defeated by the cross-party alliance's bid to take control of the Commons agenda and pass legislation which would prevent a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

The move would require the Prime Minister to seek a delay to Brexit until January 31, 2020 if no agreement has been reached and MPs have not approved a no-deal withdrawal.

Commons Speaker John Bercow gave the green light for the cross-party alliance to launch their bid on Tuesday to seize control of the House's business the following day.

Mr Johnson told MPs the legislation aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit would "force me to go to Brussels and beg an extension" and "destroy any chance" of negotiating an agreement.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mr Johnson was leading a Government with "no mandate, no morals and, as of today, no majority".

In a sign of the bitter divisions within the Conservative ranks, former chancellor Philip Hammond accused Downing Street of "rank hypocrisy" and warned of the "fight of a lifetime" if officials attempt to prevent him from standing at the next general election as a Conservative candidate.

Mr Johnson told rebel MPs on Tuesday that a delay to Brexit would be an "extinction-level event", a Government spokesman said.

"I think this Prime Minister has been clear, and in fact I heard him say it in the meeting with the rebels today, that an extension for politicians of all sorts is an extinction-level event. It would undermine democracy and faith in democracy."

Dominic Grieve, who served as attorney general in David Cameron's government, said threats to withdraw the whip from any Tories voting against the Government demonstrated Mr Johnson's "ruthlessness" in power.

Ex-Cabinet minister Justine Greening said she would not stand as a Tory candidate at the next election, telling the PA news agency that a no-deal Brexit was "the most profoundly un-Conservative policy you could possibly have".

Ms Greening, Mr Hammond and Mr Grieve all confirmed they would join opposition MPs in voting for legislation designed to delay Britain's exit from the EU if no agreement can be struck with the European Union before October 31.

Former Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt, one of the rebel Tory sponsors of the cross-party legislation, also said he would not fight the next election due to a "fundamental, and unresolvable disagreement with our party leadership" over Brexit.

POLITICS Brexit
(PA Graphics)

Dr Lee's defection wiped out the Tory-DUP majority in the Commons.

He said: "This Conservative Government is aggressively pursuing a damaging Brexit in unprincipled ways."

Mr Johnson sought to scare off a rebellion by indicating he would push for a snap general election if MPs succeed in their bid to seize control of parliamentary proceedings and confirming plans to strip rebels of the whip, preventing them from standing for the party.

Mr Hammond, who was reselected as Tory candidate for Runnymede & Weybridge on Monday night, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "A lot of my colleagues have come under immense pressure. Some have responded to that by saying 'enough, I'm going'. That is not going to be my approach. This is my party. I have been a member of this party for 45 years."

The Prime Minister held a last-ditch meeting with potential rebels including former cabinet ministers Mr Hammond, David Gauke and Greg Clark on Tuesday morning.

A source close to the group said Mr Johnson "gave an unconvincing explanation" of how a deal could get through in the time allowed and he could not provide a "reasonable answer" on why the Government had not yet provided the EU with alternatives to the Irish backstop.

Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn gathered Westminster opposition leaders for talks in his parliamentary office to discuss tactics.

One of the key issues is whether Labour would back Mr Johnson's call for an early election, pencilled in for October 14.

"We want a general election, as do all the other parties," Mr Corbyn said, but he added that "the priority is to prevent a no-deal exit from the EU" on October 31.

State of the parties in the House of Commons.
(PA Graphics)

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act a two-thirds majority is required for an early election and critics have claimed Mr Johnson could seek to simply delay the date of the poll until after Brexit.

But Downing Street insisted that was wrong and there was no discretion over timing once Parliament has been dissolved.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman confirmed that if there was to be an election it would be held before the European Council summit of EU leaders on October 17.

He said: "The Prime Minister does not want to hold an election. If, by destroying his negotiating position, MPs force an election, then that would take place before the October European Council."

The spokesman warned that the rebel legislation was a "blueprint for legislative purgatory" which would cost around £1 billion a month for an extension to the Brexit process that was "very clearly in Brussels' interests, not in the British interest".

Mr Johnson could take the unenviable title of shortest-serving British prime minister should he lose a snap election next month, falling short of George Canning's 119-day stint in 1827.

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