LONDON — Opposition and rebel lawmakers wrested the legislative agenda from Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Tuesday, introducing a measure that would require the government to request an extension of the deadline for the country’s withdrawal from the European Union if no agreement is reached with the bloc.
Mr. Johnson said he would call a snap election if Parliament passed the legislation. Lawmakers are approve it on Wednesday, meaning new elections could be announced as early as Thursday.
Mr. Johnson had been bracing for this confrontation after lawmakers returned to work a week after his shocking announcement of a suspension of Parliament this month. That move, which had limited the time for lawmakers to find a way to prevent Britain from crashing out of the European Union on Oct. 31 without a deal, angered the opposition and aggravated divisions within his own party.
Here’s what you need to know about the political turmoil in Britain.
What is the showdown about?
Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on Oct. 31, and Mr. Johnson has vowed that it will happen on time, with or without a deal. But opposition parties and a significant number of rebels in his Conservative Party are adamantly opposed to a no-deal Brexit, which they say would be chaotic and economically damaging in the short and long term.
Seeking to tie Parliament’s hands, Mr. Johnson said last week that he had asked the queen to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament later this month, cutting short the already tight time frame for lawmakers to come up with a way to prevent Britain from crashing out of the European Union with no agreement in place.
The move left lawmakers scrambling for a way to weigh in on the most momentous decision the country has faced in its recent history. They decided to ram through legislation requiring the government to seek a Brexit extension if it has not reached an agreement with the European Union on withdrawal by the deadline.
Mr. Johnson has made it clear that he was unalterably opposed to seeking another extension, and on Tuesday he reiterated his plan to call for snap elections if the legislation were approved.
“I don’t want an election, the public don’t want an election, but if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 to sort this out and take this country forward,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to the next European Union summit, which is seen as the final moment for a deal to be reached.
Can Boris Johnson stop his opponents?
He is certainly trying. The outcome of Tuesday’s legislation hinged almost entirely on opponents of a no-deal Brexit in his own party. Mr. Johnson threatened to kick those rebel lawmakers out of the party, and began to make good on those promises on Tuesday evening.
By insisting that he will not request a Brexit extension, the prime minister made clear that if he lost the vote, he would seek to dissolve Parliament and call a snap election. That is now expected to happen on Thursday.
A government official confirmed as much Monday evening, saying an election would be held Oct. 14, about two weeks before the withdrawal deadline. It would be the third general election for British voters in just over four years.
At the start of the day Tuesday, Mr. Johnson held a precarious, one-vote majority in Parliament, if only with the 10 seats of a conservative party from Northern Ireland. But by the end of the day, after the defection of a Conservative member of Parliament, Phillip Lee, to the Liberal Democrats, that was gone.
So although the election under such circumstances might prove chaotic, Mr. Johnson is betting he can win a strong enough mandate to push through Brexit by Oct. 31, “do or die,” as he often says.
What does Boris Johnson really want?
Since his first address to Parliament as prime minister in July, Mr. Johnson has insisted that he is prepared for Britain to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 with or without a deal. He says this stance gives him increased bargaining power in negotiations with Europe to secure a new agreement that is more beneficial to Britain.
Even as he has raised the stakes at home, Mr. Johnson has ramped up discussions with Brussels through his Brexit negotiator, David Frost, in an attempt to find an alternative to the Irish backstop, an element of the proposed Brexit deal that has been a major sticking point.
But critics say there is not enough time to come up with a solution to the complex issue before the end of October. And many say the negotiations — and Mr. Johnson’s call for Brexit at any cost — are just ruses, aimed at a general election in which he can frame himself as the candidate who made an earnest effort to deliver on the will of the people versus the career politicians and others in Westminster.
His stance “cultivates the ground for a ‘people vs politicians’ campaign,” Michael Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, wrote on Twitter soon after Mr. Johnson addressed the nation on Monday.
The strategy could work in the prime minister’s favor. Even after his decision to suspend Parliament, 33 percent of respondents in a poll from YouGov said they were likely to vote for his Conservative Party, easily topping the opposition Labour Party’s 22 percent.
But it could also backfire. The same poll noted that Britons are not happy with the actions of the government, with 53 percent deeming Mr. Johnson’s suspension of Parliament “unacceptable.”
His tactics have alienated members of his own party and left some stalwarts, like Philip Hammond, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, in open rebellion. And they seem to have done the near impossible in uniting the divided opposition parties in an effort to stop him.
How is this playing out logistically?
Lawmakers returned to Parliament on Tuesday after weeks away and asked the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, for an emergency vote to allow opposition members to “seize control of the order paper” — a move that gave them control of the daily agenda.
Mr. Bercow who has openly criticized the prime minister’s decision to prorogue Parliament, approved their request, which led to a vote on Tuesday night.
Lawmakers are to vote Wednesday on the actual legislation, which is expected to pass based on the support for it displayed on Tuesday. That will set the stage for Mr. Johnson to ask Parliament on Thursday to call a general election. This requires a two-thirds majority, and the opposition Labour Party, while welcoming the idea of an election, says it will not support such a request until the legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit is passed.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader who has long called for new elections, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday: “We’ll support a vote to call a General Election, so the people can decide our country’s future, once the Bill to stop No Deal is law.”
What will this mean for Brexit?
With the value of the pound plunging through the $1.20 barrier for a time on Tuesday morning, it is obvious what currency traders think: more confusion and uncertainty, which is bad for business, and possible chaos, with shortages of food, medicines and fuel, which is bad for everyone.
What keeps analysts and business leaders up at night is the compressed schedule. If a general election is held on Oct. 14, a new government would have at most 17 days to deal with things before the Brexit deadline. Making matters even more hectic, the European Union is holding a summit meeting Oct. 17-18, at which the leaders will consider what to do about Brexit. That assumes, of course, that the government in place has a plan to consider.
Much will depend on which party, or parties, form the government and with how much of a mandate. If the Conservatives win, Mr. Johnson will claim a mandate for leaving, with or without a deal.
But if the opposition Labour Party wins — perhaps with the backing of other opposition parties like the strongly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats — then Mr. Corbyn is likely to seek an extension from Brussels, allowing time to either negotiate a new deal with the Europeans or, potentially, call a second referendum.
Stephen Castle and Amie Tsang contributed reporting.