Boris Johnson vowed to use his “powers of persuasion” on Friday to secure a new Brexit deal in Brussels next month, after Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders agreed to ‘trap’ the prime minister in Downing Street by blocking a snap election.
A catastrophic week for Mr Johnson, which included a schism in the Tory party and the resignation of his own brother Jo Johnson, has ended with the prime minister at bay — and looking to Brussels for possible salvation.
To add to his discomfort on Friday, he was accused by opposition MPs of being “sexist” after private cabinet papers released in court revealed he had called David Cameron, the former UK prime minister, “a girly swot”. This week he accused Labour leader Mr Corbyn of being “a big girl’s blouse”.
Mr Johnson’s allies say the prime minister is “100 per cent” focused on securing a Brexit deal at an EU summit on October 17-18 and is willing to kick out of the party any Eurosceptic hardliners who try to block it.
Mark Spencer, chief whip, has told Tory MPs that he is preparing to sack any Tory MP who refuses to back any deal Mr Johnson brings back from Brussels. “They’ll be told they won’t be able to stand in the election,” said one Johnson ally.
Mr Johnson’s options have narrowed further after the House of Lords agreed emergency legislation intended to stop Britain leaving the EU without a deal; the bill is expected to receive royal assent and become law on Monday.
Mr Johnson has said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than to seek a further delay to Brexit. But with “no-deal” taken off the table and a snap election on October 15 blocked by Labour and the other opposition parties, the pressure is on the prime minister to reach a deal in Brussels.
Asked whether he would resign rather than seek an extension to the Article 50 exit process, Mr Johnson said: “That’s not a hypothesis I will contemplate. I want to get a deal done.”
One ally of the prime minister said Mr Johnson took a tough line with 21 Tory rebels who voted for the anti-no deal bill this week because he was determined to impose equally iron discipline on Eurosceptics tempted to vote down his deal next month.
Maddy Thimont Jack of the Institute for Government said: “Johnson’s best hope now is probably to go back to trying to getting a Withdrawal Agreement signed with the EU on October 17.”
On Friday Mr Corbyn agreed to work with opposition parties to thwart Mr Johnson’s plan on Monday to call an October 15 election. The prime minister needs two-thirds of MPs — or 434 in total — to back an early poll.
Labour, the Scottish National party, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru and the Independent Group agreed they should only agree to an election once Mr Johnson has been forced to take a no-deal Brexit off the table.
They have also rejected the idea of moving a motion of no confidence in the prime minister on Monday, which could trigger an election later in October. It means that Mr Johnson is likely to still be in Downing Street at the time of the Brussels summit.
On a visit to Scotland, the prime minister accused Mr Corbyn of running scared of an election and “not trusting the people” but said he was confident he could secure a deal in Brussels by using his “powers of persuasion”.
After weeks of silence, Mr Johnson is now finally offering a glimpse of his thinking about how to replace the Irish “backstop” — designed to avoid the return of a hard border in Ireland — that he wants to remove from Theresa May’s original exit deal.
He confirmed this week he was willing to leave Northern Ireland in the EU single market for “agrifood” — removing the need for plant and animal health checks at the border — if the idea had the consent of the currently suspended Stormont assembly.
The prime minister will travel to Dublin on Monday to meet Ireland’s prime minister Leo Varadkar to discuss the idea. The EU has warned that it does not go anywhere near far enough to address the question of the Irish border.