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UK lawmakers locked in Brexit showdown with Boris Johnson

By JILL LAWLESS and DANICA KIRKA Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers battling Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan to leave the European Union without a divorce deal cleared their first big hurdle Wednesday, approving in principle a bill that could stop him from implementing his vow to deliver Brexit in less than two months, "do or die."

In a second straight day of parliamentary turmoil, the House of Commons voted 329-300 in favor of the bill, setting the stage for another vote on it later in the day. If approved, it will be sent to Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords.

Even then, its fate is unsure. Pro-Brexit peers in the Lords are threatening to try to stop it by filibustering until time runs out.

The maneuvers are part of a head-on showdown between Johnson's Brexit-at-all-costs administration and a Parliament worried about the economic and social damage that could be wrought by a messy divorce.

Johnson says Britain must leave the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal, and plans to seek a national election if the opposition bill becomes law in hope of getting a less obstructive crop of legislators.

Opposition lawmakers, supported by rebels in Johnson's Conservative Party, warn that crashing out of the bloc without a divorce agreement would cause irreparable economic harm.

"There is very little time left," said Labour Party lawmaker Hilary Benn as he introduced the measure. "The purpose of the bill is very simple: to ensure that the United Kingdom does not leave the European Union on the 31st of October without an agreement."

The bill would require the government to ask the EU to delay Brexit until Jan. 31, 2020, if it can't secure a deal with the bloc by late October.

The lawmakers hope to pass the bill into law — a process that can take months — by the end of the week, because Johnson plans to suspend Parliament at some point next week until Oct. 14.

Johnson became prime minister in July by promising to lead Britain out of the EU, breaking the impasse that has paralyzed the country's politics since voters decided in June 2016 to leave the bloc. But he is caught between the EU, which refuses to renegotiate the deal it stuck with his predecessor, Theresa May, and a majority of British lawmakers opposed to leaving without an agreement. Most economists say a no-deal Brexit would cause severe economic disruption and plunge the U.K. into recession.

Johnson insisted Wednesday that talks with the EU on a revised deal were "making substantial progress."

But the bloc says the U.K. has not submitted any substantial new proposals. European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said "there is nothing new" from London.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Johnson of bad faith — pretending to negotiate but really frittering away time until a no-deal Brexit became inevitable.

"These negotiations are a sham. All he is doing is running down the clock," Corbyn told lawmakers in the House of Commons.

Johnson condemned the opposition legislation as a "surrender bill" that would tie his hands and "wreck any chance" of Britain concluding successful negotiations with the EU.

He said that if the bill passed this week, he would call a general election on Oct. 15, taking his message directly to the people in his bid to deliver Brexit. But it's unclear whether Johnson has the votes to trigger an election, which needs the approval of two-thirds of the 650 House of Commons lawmakers.

The Labour Party said it would oppose an election until legislation is in place to block a no-deal Brexit. The party's Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, said Johnson had violated the trust of the House of Commons with his decision last week to suspend Parliament for several weeks before the Brexit deadline, limiting the time that lawmakers can fight the government's plans.

"He has zero trust, because I'm afraid he has been dishonest time and again," Starmer told the BBC.

Johnson, who was a leader of the 2016 campaign to leave the EU, has long said that his enthusiasm and energy for Brexit will allow him to succeed in leaving the EU where May had failed, leading to her resignation.

But events have spiraled out of his control. He leads a government with no majority in Parliament and may not be able to secure an election that could change that fact.

He was humiliated Tuesday — the first day of Parliament's autumn term — by losing his first Commons vote as prime minister when lawmakers passed a motion 328-301 that enabled their push for a law stopping a no-deal Brexit. His government lost its working majority as one Conservative lawmaker defected to the opposition, and more than 20 Tory legislators sided with the opposition on the vote.

"Not a good start, Boris!" one unidentified lawmaker shouted after the vote.

Johnson responded with swift vengeance, expelling the rebels from the Conservatives in Parliament, leaving them as independent lawmakers. Among those bounced out were former International Development Secretary Rory Stewart; Kenneth Clarke, a former treasury chief and the longest-serving member of the House of Commons; and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Johnson hero Winston Churchill.

Soames came close to tears as he told the House of Commons that he had been proud to serve as a Conservative lawmaker for 37 years.

"I am truly very sad that it should end in this way," he said.

The beleaguered U.K. leader got a boost Wednesday when a Scottish court refused to intervene in his decision to suspend Parliament, ruling it was a matter for lawmakers to decide, not the courts.

The case was only the first of several challenges to Johnson's maneuver, however.

Transparency campaigner Gina Miller, who won a ruling in the Supreme Court in 2017 that stopped the government from triggering the countdown to Brexit without a vote in Parliament, has another legal challenge in the works — set to be heard Thursday. A human rights campaigner has sued in Northern Ireland, arguing that the historic Good Friday peace accord is in jeopardy because of Johnson's actions.

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Associated Press writers Gregory Katz in London and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.

Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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