Boris Johnson has suffered a humbling double defeat, as MPs backed legislation to stop Britain leaving the EU without a deal and then blocked the prime minister’s attempt to call an election to regain the initiative on Brexit.
Mr Johnson, facing growing anger from Tory MPs over his handling of Brexit, endured two defeats inside two hours on Wednesday night, leaving him, in effect, trapped in 10 Downing Street by a hostile parliament.
First, Tory rebel MPs joined forces with opposition parties to approve a Brexit delay bill, aimed at blocking a no-deal exit at the end of October, by 327 votes to 299. The measure has moved to the House of Lords.
Mr Johnson said the bill represented “surrender” since it would allow the EU to set the terms for any delay to Brexit. He claimed Britain could be held in a Brexit limbo “for many years to come”.
The prime minister immediately tabled a measure to hold a general election on October 15, claiming it would allow the public to decide whether he or Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, would conclude Brexit negotiations.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments act Mr Johnson needed two-thirds of MPs to back the motion — a threshold of 434 — to secure an election. But the attempt to trigger an election secured only 298 votes in favour, with 56 against.
Opposition leaders, including Mr Corbyn, said they would not agree to an early election until the legislation to stop a no-deal exit on October 31 was in place. Labour abstained on the vote.
Mr Johnson accused Mr Corbyn of being “chicken” but the Labour leader said the offer of a general election was like “the apple to Snow White from the wicked queen . . . he’s offering the poison of a no deal”.
One Tory MP said Mr Johnson was now being “held hostage” in Number 10. The prime minister’s advisers believe Mr Corbyn will agree to an election next week, once the anti-no deal legislation is on the statute book.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson, who on Tuesday purged 21 Conservative MPs who voted against the government in another Brexit vote, was urged by moderates in his party’s 100-strong “one nation” Tory group to reinstate the rebels.
Damian Green, a former deputy prime minister, demanded in a letter to Mr Johnson that the MPs be restored to the Tory whip. The one-nation group counts Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan, both cabinet ministers, among its supporters.
“We’ve got to bring them back if we want to win the coming election,” said one minister.
MPs Edward Leigh and Tobias Ellwood criticised Mr Johnson for his treatment of the rebels, who included former chancellors Mr Clarke and Philip Hammond, at a bad-tempered meeting of Tory MPs.
“There was an inference from the prime minister that there could be a way back for some of them before the general election,” said one attendee.
Mark Spencer, the chief whip, tried to calm the anger in Tory ranks by telling MPs that when — or if — Mr Johnson secured a Brexit deal in Brussels, he would take equally tough action against any hardcore Eurosceptics who voted against it.
In a sign that Mr Johnson wants to draw a line under the Tory bloodletting, he did not take the whip from Caroline Spelman, a former minister who joined the list of rebels on Wednesday by voting for anti-no deal legislation.
Before the legislation can receive royal assent it is expected to have a rough ride in the Lords, where Eurosceptic Tory peers are planning to use guerrilla tactics to try to stop it becoming law.
Tory peers have tabled about 100 amendments in a move that could force the Lords to sit through the night.
Elsewhere, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told EU27 ambassadors in Brussels that talks with the British government were “in a state of paralysis”.
His assessment came after David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, provided no fresh ideas to replace the Irish backstop during talks in Brussels, according to officials.
Mr Johnson’s government has raised further alarm in EU capitals by making it clear the UK will not adhere to promises made by Theresa May to maintain “level playing field” standards in areas such as social and environmental policy.