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Anti-Brexit lawmakers try cooperating, for a change

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said he would "do everything necessary" to stop a no-deal Brexit, following leaked official warnings that this could lead to food, fuel, and medicine shortages.
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said he would "do everything necessary" to stop a no-deal Brexit, following leaked official warnings that this could lead to food, fuel, and medicine shortages. Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

LONDON — Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, agreed at a meeting of opposition lawmakers Tuesday to shelve his plan for toppling Prime Minister Boris Johnson next week and instead focus on passing a law to head off a no-deal Brexit.

That strategy, favored by more centrist lawmakers, will face considerable hurdles when Parliament reconvenes in September. But the ability of the anti-Brexit contingent in Parliament to agree on any plan at all was a mark of progress for a group that has been riven by disagreements about how to stop Johnson, who has vowed to pull Britain out of the European Union by Oct. 31, with or without a deal.

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Johnson has sought to use the threat of a no-deal Brexit as leverage in talks with the European Union on modifying the plan for Britain’s withdrawal and managed to hold the door open to a reworked Brexit deal in talks with European leaders this weekend.

From Johnson’s perspective, then, any effort to reduce the threat of a no-deal Brexit is counterproductive. His office Tuesday railed against the opposition’s plan, calling it “utterly perverse that Corbyn and his allies are actively seeking to sabotage the UK’s position.”

But the prospect of a new Brexit deal before Oct. 31 remains slim. And for advocates of staying in the European Union, the word Tuesday that lawmakers opposed to a no-deal Brexit were ready to collaborate, at least for the moment, was a welcome sign.

“A group of politicians who may personally loathe each other got together and decided that constructive engagement was more useful than enabling medicine shortages,” wrote Jonathan Lis, deputy director of British Influence, a research institute, alluding to the predicted fallout of a no-deal Brexit. “If they carry on like this, they may just be able to save people’s livelihoods and defeat Boris Johnson.”

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If the plan agreed to Tuesday succeeds in tying Johnson’s hands, it could give him all the reason he needs to try calling an early general election. That would give him a chance to expand the Conservatives’ paper-thin working majority and strengthen his negotiating position in Brussels.

But in another twist in the years-long Brexit drama, some analysts wonder whether Corbyn remains as enthusiastic about an early election himself, given his feeble poll numbers. Johnson would be unable to call an early election without Labour’s backing.

“We’re still in that situation where there are all sorts of exits out of the burning building, but they all look locked,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London

The biggest hang-up for the anti-Brexit camp in recent weeks has been the question of who would take over a so-called government of national unity if lawmakers succeeded in ousting Johnson in a vote of no confidence after lawmakers return from summer recess next week.

Corbyn, who leads the biggest opposition party, nominated himself this month as caretaker prime minister, promising to avert a no-deal Brexit and then call a general election to break the logjam in Parliament.

Proposing an anti-Brexit bill could quickly lead to fireworks in Parliament. Lawmakers did not release details Tuesday, but the bill might require Johnson to ask Brussels for another Brexit extension, mirroring a plan that lawmakers forced on his predecessor, Theresa May, early this year.

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Any such plan would depend on European leaders accepting an extension — no sure thing as patience is wearing thin on the Continent — and anti-Brexit lawmakers have not made clear how they would make use of a delay.