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Johnson Raises Brexit Stakes; Britain Gears Up for Possible Election

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the House of Commons in London
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the House of Commons in London

Newly appointed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reiterated his pledge to leave the European Union in October under any circumstance, raising the likelihood that Britain could crash out of the bloc without a deal.

In a brutal reshuffle this week, Johnson purged the Cabinet of rivals and rewarded loyalists and pro-Brexit politicians with new government posts.

In his first speech to parliament Thursday, Johnson said a golden age awaited Britain after Brexit and promised to leave the EU on the agreed date of Oct. 31.

“To do otherwise would cause a catastrophic loss of confidence in our political system,” he told a raucous House of Commons.

Johnson Raises Brexit Stakes as Britain Gears up for Possible Election video player.
WATCH: Johnson Raises Brexit Stakes as Britain Gears up for Possible Election

General election

Analysts say a general election seems increasingly likely, with parliament deadlocked and Johnson likely unable to secure a majority for any agreement. MPs also have pledged to block any attempt to leave with no deal.

Johnson said the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, was unacceptable and had to be reopened, demanding the removal of the so-called Irish backstop, a mechanism that would keep Britain closely aligned to the EU if a free trade agreement does not remove the need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

“We will throw ourselves into these negotiations with the greatest energy and determination and in a spirit of friendship. And I hope that the EU will be equally ready. And that they will rethink their current refusal to make any changes to the withdrawal agreement. If they do not, if they do not, we will of course have to leave the UK without an agreement under Article 50,” Johnson told MPs.

FILE - Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar reacts during an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 24, 2019.

No-deal Brexit condemned

That threat brought condemnation from opposition parties and from the EU itself, which has repeatedly rejected reopening talks on the Withdrawal Agreement. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar described a no deal exit as a British threat.

“The only people who can cause no deal is the United Kingdom government. The position of the European Union and the position of Ireland has not changed. The backstop is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement,” Varadkar said Thursday.

Parliament rejected the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by May three times.

MPs have also threatened to block any attempt to leave the EU with no deal, fearing economic devastation. Johnson has not ruled out suspending parliament to force an exit with potentially huge constitutional implications. Political analyst Mark Garnett of Lancaster University says the parliamentary arithmetic does not favor the new prime minister.

“The positions in parliament will be even more entrenched now, and so in a way he faces a more difficult task with parliament than Mrs. May did. All he can hope for is that this message of optimism is going to be echoed back by the country, the country is going to respond to that, and that will make it very much more difficult for parliamentarians to continue in their resistance,” Garnett said.

Johnson’s only way through the political quagmire could be to go back to the people, Garnett added.

FILE - A group of young people hold up placards during a demonstration to demand a second referendum on Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Dec. 12, 2018.

“As much as anything, his rhetoric is gearing up for a general election campaign in which he is going to invite the British public to choose between optimism and defeatism,” he said. “You can almost see his attack lines being written for him already for that forthcoming election.”

The EU might agree to another extension to Brexit to allow for an election. However, polls show no one party gaining a majority and the public deeply split.

Despite the new faces in government, Britain is facing the same problems, with no clear end to its ongoing political crisis.