LONDON (AP) — Britons will be heading out to vote in the dark days of December after the House of Commons on Tuesday backed an early national vote that could break the country’s political impasse over Brexit — or turn out to be merely a temporary distraction.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes that electing a new crop of lawmakers will provide a solution to the deadlock that has stalled the U.K.’s departure from the European Union.
The House of Commons voted 428-20 — with dozens of lawmakers abstaining — for a bill authorizing an election on Dec. 12. It will become law once it is approved Wednesday by the unelected House of Lords, which does not have the power to overrule the elected Commons.
Johnson is pushing for an election in hopes of breaking the parliamentary stalemate that blocked his plan to take Britain out of the European Union this month. This week the EU granted Britain a three-month Brexit extension until Jan. 31.
Johnson is gambling that an election will give his Conservative Party a majority. But after three years of inconclusive political wrangling over Brexit, British voters are weary and the results of an election are hard to predict.
Johnson — who has had to abandon his vow to lead Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31 “do or die” — accused his opponents of wanting to prolong the Brexit process “until the 12th of never.”
He told lawmakers in Parliament on Tuesday there was no choice but “to go to the country to break free from this impasse.”
“There is only one way to get Brexit done in the face of this unrelenting parliamentary obstructionism, this endless, willful, fingers crossed, ‘not me guv’ refusal to deliver on the mandate of the people — and that is to refresh this Parliament and give the people a choice,” Johnson said.
The road to polling day opened up when the main opposition Labour Party, which had opposed three previous attempts by Johnson to trigger an election, changed its position.
Now that Brexit has been delayed, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his opposition party would vote in favor of an early election because the prospect that Britain could crash out of the EU without a divorce deal had been taken off the table.
“I’ve said consistently, when no-deal is off the table we will back an election,” Corbyn said. “Today, after much denial and much bluster by the prime minister that deal is officially off the table, so this country can vote for the government that it deserves.”
The looming vote comes two and a half years before the next scheduled election, due in 2022, and will be the country’s first December election since 1923.
Lawmakers rejected an attempt by the Labour Party to hold the election on Dec. 9. The party argued the earlier date would mean more students could vote because universities would not have begun their Christmas holidays.
Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden said the 12th was preferable because it gave lawmakers a few more days to finish up parliamentary business, and retained Britain’s tradition of holding elections on Thursdays.
Earlier, a last-minute hitch to the government’s plans emerged when opposition parties announced plans to try to amend the terms of an early election to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 and expand the voting base to include citizens of the 27 other EU nations who are living in Britain.
The government said it would abandon the bill if that plan succeeded. The amendments were not chosen for a vote by parliamentary authorities, who judged that they would have fundamentally altered the legislation.
Johnson took office in July vowing to “get Brexit done” after his predecessor, Theresa May, resigned in defeat. But the Conservative leader, who said just weeks ago that he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than postpone the Oct. 31 Brexit date, was forced by Parliament to seek the extension in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit, which would damage the economies of both Britain and the EU.
European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted Tuesday that the EU had formally approved the extension, and added, pointedly — “It may be the last one. Please make the best use of this time.”
Johnson plans to campaign as a leader who has a viable, strong Brexit plan for the country but who has been stymied by an anti-democratic opposition and a bureaucratic EU.
He has argued that without an early election, the British government would be like the cartoon character Charlie Brown, “endlessly running up to kick the ball only to have Parliament whisk it away.”
An election is a risk, though, not only for Johnson’s Conservatives but also for Labour. Opinion polls currently give Johnson’s Conservatives a lead over Labour, but there’s a strong chance that an election could produce a Parliament as divided over Brexit as the current one.
Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May called an early election in 2017 with the aim of boosting the Conservatives’ majority and strengthening her hand in negotiations with the EU. The party ended up losing its majority in Parliament, and May failed to pass her key Brexit measures.
Many voters are fed up with politicians from all sides after more than three years of Brexit drama, and all the parties are worried about a backlash from grumpy voters asked to go to the polls at the darkest, coldest time of the year.
“We all know that a poll in December is less than ideal,” said Pete Wishart, a lawmaker with the opposition Scottish National Party. “But it is worth that risk in order that we remove this prime minister.”
Associated Press writer Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.