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Delay Brexit? 'I'd rather be dead in a ditch,' says British PM Boris Johnson

Key Points
  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised on Thursday he would never delay Britain's exit from the European Union, due on Oct. 31.
  • Asked after Thursday's speech to police cadets in Wakefield whether he would ask for such a delay he said: "I'd rather be dead in a ditch."
  • After wrestling control of the lower house of parliament on Wednesday, a vote forced him to seek a three-month delay to Brexit rather than leaving without a deal on Oct. 31, the date now set in law.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions session in the House of Commons in London, Britain September 4, 2019.
Jessica Taylor | ©UK Parliament | Reuters

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised on Thursday he would never delay Britain's exit from the European Union, due on Oct. 31, saying he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than do so.

After wrestling control of the lower house of parliament on Wednesday, an alliance of opposition parties and rebels expelled from the Conservative Party voted to force him to seek a three-month delay to Brexit rather than leaving without a deal on Oct. 31, the date now set in law.

Asked after Thursday's speech to police cadets in Wakefield whether he would ask for such a delay he said: "I'd rather be dead in a ditch."

"It achieves absolutely nothing. What on earth is the point of further delay," he added.

As the United Kingdom spins towards an election, Brexit remains up in the air more than three years after Britons voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum. Options range from a turbulent 'no-deal' exit to abandoning the whole endeavor.

Ahead of the speech in Wakefield, northern England, where Johnson effectively began an informal election campaign, his own brother, Jo Johnson, resigned as a junior business minister and said he was stepping down as a lawmaker for their Conservative Party.

Since taking office in July, Boris Johnson has tried to corral the Conservative Party, which is openly fighting over Brexit, behind his strategy of leaving the European Union on Oct. 31 with or without a deal.

On Tuesday, he expelled 21 Conservative lawmakers from the party for failing to back his strategy, including Winston Churchill's grandson and two former finance ministers.

Behind the sound and the fury of the immediate crisis, an election now beckons for a polarized country.

The main choices on offer are Johnson's insistence on leaving the EU on Oct. 31, come what may, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's hard-left socialist vision, coupled with a promise of a fresh referendum with an option to stay in the EU.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who manages government business in the House of Commons, said parliament would be asked again on Monday, after the blocking bill becomes law, to approve a snap election. On Wednesday, lawmakers rejected Johnson's request for an Oct. 15 poll.

The Brexit crisis has for three years overshadowed European Union affairs, eroded Britain's reputation as a stable pillar of the West and seen the sterling lunge back and forth in line with the probability of a 'no-deal' exit.

Asked if Brexit would happen on Oct. 31, Johnson's senior adviser Dominic Cummings, a focus of many departing Conservative lawmakers' grievances, told Reuters: "Trust the people."

Former prime minister John Major called on Johnson to sack "political anarchist" Cummings, in a speech on Thursday.

Election looms

Opposition parties say they are in favor of an election in principle, but are debating whether or not to accept Johnson's proposed date. Johnson has accused Corbyn of cowardice for not facilitating a snap election.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Downing Street on Thursday, Johnson quipped: "We're not too keen on your chlorinated chicken - we have a gigantic chlorinated chicken of our own here on the opposition benches."

The prospect that Britain will have to accept imports of chlorine-washed chicken from the United States in any trade deal between the two has become a symbol of what some say will be a weak negotiating position after Brexit.

Pence, who laughed, said the United States supported Britain's decision to leave the EU.

He said later that Britain should take no lectures on how to conduct its affairs — a nod to U.S. President Barack Obama's ill-fated warning in 2016 that Britain would go to the "back of the queue" for a trade deal if it left the EU.

The sense that the prospect of a 'no-deal' exit had receded pushed the pound 1.4% higher on Wednesday and it surged to a five-week high on Thursday, ending at $1.2317. UBS Global Wealth Management said the sterling could rally to $1.30 if Brexit was delayed until January 2020 and an election was held after October.

An election before Brexit would allow Johnson, if he won, to repeal the blocking bill. The law will pass the upper house, the Lords, by Friday evening.

Diplomats said an election campaign would halt any Brexit talks with the EU and expressed frustration with the turmoil in British politics at such an important juncture in European history.

In particular, they said London had yet to make any meaningful proposals to address Johnson's complaints about the divorce settlement that his predecessor Theresa May agreed with the EU but failed to get through parliament at home.

"The UK side continues to produce chaos and it is very hard to predict anything," said one EU diplomat.

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