London, September 3: The Boris Johnson government on Tuesday lost its slender majority of one in the House of Commons when Conservative MP Philip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats over what he called the government “aggressively pursuing Brexit in “unprincipled ways.”
The development adds a new dimension to the Brexit-related charged atmosphere that includes an emergency motion to be voted on Tuesday night and courts in Scotland and England hearing challenges to the government’s prorogation of parliament.
Lee, MP from Bracknell, said: “This Conservative government is aggressively pursuing a damaging Brexit in unprincipled ways. It is putting lives and livelihoods at risk unnecessarily and it is wantonly endangering the integrity of the United Kingdom”.
“More widely, it is undermining our country’s economy, democracy and role in the world. It is using political manipulation, bullying and lies. And it is doing these things in a deliberate and considered way. That is why today I am joining the Liberal Democrats”.
Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn jousted across the dispatch box when parliament resumed after the summer recess in a crucial week that will shape the ways in which the UK leaves the EU on October 31, with or without an agreement.
Besides the legal challenges, the Johnson government faces combined opposition backed moves in parliament and legislation designed to prevent it from leaving without an agreement, an option widely considered economically crippling and an act of self-harm.
The Liberal Democrats with an openly anti-Brexit, pro-EU stance has benefited considerably in recent elections and has become the party of choice of MPs of similar persuasion. Lee follows the former Tory MP Sarah Wollaston and ex-Labour MP Chuka Umunna in joining the party, which now has 15 MPs.
The Conservative party has been rocked with former chancellor Philip Hammond and others reacting with fury suggestions that Johnson as leader of the party would de-select them as candidates in the election if they voted with the opposition in parliament.
Officials briefed journalists that if the opposition bill seeking to stop a no-deal Brexit were to be passed, the government would quickly move a motion to hold a mid-term election. Such a motion would need Labour’s support since a two-thirds majority is needed to trigger the election.
October 14 is the date mentioned as the most likely for the mid-term election, which would be the third in the last five years, after the general election in 2015 and the mid-term election in 2017. However, much manoeuvring inside and outside parliament is needed before the election is agreed and announced.
In an interview seen as ‘extraordinary’, Hammond on Tuesday came down heavily on his party leader Johnson for claims that MPs concerned with the debilitating impact of a no-deal Brexit and who vote with the opposition would be de-selected as candidates.
He told BBC: “There’s a group of Conservative who feel very strongly that now is the time where we have to put the national interest ahead of any threats to us personally and our careers. I think there will be enough people for us to get this over the line.”
Hammond described claims by Johnson that negotiations were ongoing with Brussels on a possible agreement as “nonsense”, adding that de-selections would be “rank hypocrisy” given that eight serving cabinet ministers had defied the whip on Brexit votes in the past year.
“I don’t believe (they can stop me standing in the election). There would certainly be the fight of a lifetime if they tried to…I am going to defend my party against incomers, entryists, who are trying to turn it from a broad church to a narrow faction,” Hammond said.
There was already talk of the possibility of another hung parliament if the mid-term election were held, since both the major parties – Conservative, Labour – have been haemorrhaging in recent elections, with parties with a clear Brexit position gaining substantially due to public ennui over endless debates and non-delivery of the 2016 referendum verdict. (Courtesy: HT)